The Elian Gonzalez Story: 10 Years Later
In a town used to tales of miraculous escapes from Castro’s Cuba; the Elian Gonzalez story was over the top. A fragile, angelic-looking boy was found clinging to an inner tube on Thanksgiving day by fishermen in the Gulf Stream off Fort Lauderdale. The 5 year-old boy was one of three Cuban nationals who survived after being tossed into the sea when their boat capsized as they fled Cuba. Eleven others on the boat - including the boy’s mother - perished.
Some saw the boy’s survival as a miracle of God: he was unscathed after two days in the water.
Ten years ago this month, the saga of Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy rescued at sea on November 25, 1999, was moving quickly towards its climax.
The boy’s story was compelling, even to the most cynical observer.
“It was a perfect storm,” says WFOR reporter Jim DeFede, who covered the Elian saga as a staff writer at Miami New Times. “Not even the recent reports of Fidel Castro’s death touched off the sort of passion that the Elian story did,” says DeFede.
After just one day in the hospital, Elian was released into the custody of a Miami uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, and other relatives. That same day, the Cuban government requested his return. The stage was set.
Elian’s relatives filed a request for political asylum for the boy. They believed his deliverance to them was a sign from God; a sign that boy should live in freedom.
It’s a sign that was reinforced when the boy told the family that dolphins helped him survive two days in the water. He was immediately dubbed “el nino milagro,” the miracle child.
Within hours of the boy’s arrival at the modest home of his uncle at 2319 NW Second Street, a small contingent of media - print and TV - arrived to tell his story. They remained there - their ranks soon numbering in the hundreds - for the next four months.
And why not? The boy’s story was a “made for TV” story if ever there was one. A story rife with imagery.
During the boy’s 149 days in Miami, he was never more than a few dozen yards from an army of cameramen and photographers who shadowed his every move.
Also present; a cadre of self-appointed spin doctors who orchestrated the boy’s public appearances; their actions fueled by a blinding, decades-old hatred of Fidel Castro.
Veteran Miami Herald photographer Tim Chapman who covered much of the story says: “it was the most disgusting exhibition of journalism that I’ve seen in my 38 year career.”
Chapman continues: “The way the media allowed itself to be manipulated; it’s no wonder the public hates journalists so much. I would rather be shot at in Nicaragua than to cover a story like Elian again.”
I also covered the story
Even before I had an assignment, I showed up at the house on NW 2nd Street a few days after his arrival because I sensed there was something different about this story; something that set it apart from the hundreds of other stories that I’ve covered in Miami’s Cuban-American community.
A few days later, the Reuters news service assigned me to cover the story.
I was expected to be at the house early each morning, and to get the first pictures of the day of whatever Elian may have been doing.
In the four months following his arrival in Miami I photographed Elian sitting on the front steps of his home eating a McDonald’s Happy Meal, buying ice cream, playing with his new black Lab puppy which he’s named “Dolphin,” receiving Christmas presents from baseball agent Joe Cubas, visiting church, decorating a Christmas tree, attending his first day of school, and riding his bike in the small front yard of his Miami home.
The pictures were instantly flashed around the world within minutes of being made.
Some of the photos made their way into government-run newspapers in Cuba.
The Cuban photo editors, it seemed, just couldn’t get enough pictures of Elian that showed him with sullen or frustrated expressions. Once, one of my photos of a frowning Elian made it to the front page of Juventud Rebelde.
Many of Elian’s appearances before our cameras were skillfully stage-managed by political consultant Armando Gutierrez, the family’s roly-poly spokesman.
Gutierrez arrived each morning at the home shortly after 7am. On many mornings he carried a sack of pastelitos and cafe Cubano, which he distributed to the photographers and cameramen who were already in place waiting to see what photo-op Gutierrez has planned for the day.
One of Gutierrez’s more manipulative photo-ops
One of Gutierrez’s more manipulative photo-ops occurred on a pleasant, sunny morning in early January. Elian emerged from the house, accompanied by a black Labrador puppy. For the next 15 or 20 minutes, the boy ran around the front yard as the puppy chased him, nipping playfully at his heels.
Every adorable moment was photographed by a platoon of cameramen and photographers, who pressed against a chain link fence until it almost collapsed.
Many in the media saw right through Gutierrez’s attempts at choreographing Elian’s appearances.
“[Gutierrez] comes out and throws us these little nuggets, and we all dive to gobble them up like little puppies going after treats,” one photographer told Miami New Times.
The Miami Herald’s Carl Hiassen also noted Gutierrez’s press manipulation and the media’s complicity in a January 2000 column:
On Tuesday, January 4, 2000, Elian started classes at a private school in Little Havana.
It was clear that his Miami family wanted to demonstrate that Elian was leading a normal life in Miami.
And so, another photo-op was planned.
Minutes before Elian was to leave for school, a car bearing the logo of the Lincoln-Marti School arrived at the house.
Almost before it rolled to a full stop, a breathless woman emerged with a package and raced into the home.
A few minutes later Elian walked out of the front door wearing a brand new school uniform, which included a crisp, white shirt with the red, white and blue crest of the Lincoln-Marti School stitched to the breast pocket. Video cameras rolled and still cameras clicked.
Elian got into his great uncle Lazaro’s car and set off for the school at SW 11th Avenue and 1st Street.
A caravan of photographers followed.
As we got out of our cars at the school, someone announced that we would be able to photograph a part of Elian’s first day.
A few pool photographers were picked and led inside. I wasn’t part of the pool but I managed to sneak in anyway.
Elian was led into a classroom full of kids his age. There was a sign on the wall that read: “Bienvenidos Elian!”
Elian, who looked genuinely scared for the first time since his arrival in Miami, clung to one of his relatives as a sweaty gaggle of photographers jockeyed for the best angle in the cramped, hot room.
The following day - January 5 - as Elian was getting ready for his second day at school, his family received a call from the director of the Miami Immigration and Naturalization Service. He told them that Washington had reached a decision regarding Elian’s fate.
Rather than hear the news over the phone, the family drove to the INS building. They learned that the agency had decided that Elian’s father in Cuba was responsible for his custody.
They were given until January 14 to return Elian to Cuba.
Meanwhile, Elian continued to attend school daily.
And photographers continued to arrive early in the morning before he emerged from the house.
Each day, as Elian walked to the car for the ride to school, a knot of photographers snapped away. Then, all the photographers ran for their cars and tried to beat Elian to school so they could photograph him one more time as he stepped out of the car and walked the few paces to the school’s entrance.
Meet the Press
Alan Diaz also covered the story. A freelance photographer on assignment for the Associated Press, he hooked up with a group of network TV cameramen forming a journalistic cabal. They shared information about Elian’s movements amongst themselves.
They bought walkie-talkies and teamed up as they trailed Elian to school in a daily game of cat-and-mouse.
One of the group had convinced the others that government agents would probably try to snatch the boy as he was traveling to or from school. Some of the photographers followed Elian’s car and others took the lead; at least one always kept Elian’s car in sight.
Meanwhile, despite the best efforts of Elian’s Miami family to provide him with as normal a life as possible, the strain of the ordeal began to take its toll on them.
On January 9, the Miami Herald’s Meg Laughlin reported in the Sunday paper that his Miami caretakers were exhausted by the fight to keep Elian in Miami: “In the battle to keep 6-year-old Elian in Miami, a world of politicians, lawyers, strategists and professional Castro-haters has taken over the small two-bedroom house where the child is living with his Miami relatives. An army of photographers , cameramen, reporters and technicians has taken over the area surrounding the house.
“The result: The five Gonzalez family members - the keepers of the child who miraculously survived a shipwreck at sea to unwittingly become the symbol of both Cuban exiles here and Cuban President Fidel Castro there - have lost all semblance of normalcy in their private lives. They have become prisoners in their own home, a modest, beige stucco house in Miami’s Little Havana.”
The Gonzalez family were not the only ones whose lives were affected by the continuing media circus.
Their neighbors learned that they had also become prisoners. They awoke each morning to find the crowd of news people on 2nd Street had seemingly increased in size from the day before. Many of them found their driveways blocked by news vans.
But while some neighbors felt imprisoned, others turned to entrepreneurship.
They rented out their front lawns to TV news outlets eager for a place to park their huge satellite trucks. Some homeowners earned as much as $500 a day doing this.
The news networks early on recognized the significance of the story. They agreed that a pool cameraman should be in place at the house 24 hours a day and shared the cost of having a videographer watch the house during the overnight hours.
Veteran CBS cameraman Roberto Alvarez, - who spent 40 days in an Iraq prison after he strayed over the border during the first Gulf War - and who covered the Falklands war, Hurricane Katrina and numerous stories in Haiti, Nicaragua and El Salvador, worked many days covering Elian. So many that he says now, “Elian helped pay for my house.”
Another network cameraman, Al Durruthy, worked for ABC. He often worked as the network overnight pool photographer and logged 56 straight days on the story without a day off. When the entire affair was over, he had enough money to pay cash for a new, state of the art video camera.
But he has another reason to look back fondly on the Elian story. One day while standing outside Elian’s school, he spotted Jacquie Sosa, a reporter for Channel 10. A few days later at Elian’s house he started a conversation with Sosa. Soon the two were dating and later that same year, they were married. Both now live in Orlando and have two children.
Alan Diaz, the freelance AP photographer, started covering the story for the Associated Press a few days after the boy’s arrival at the house. He didn’t take a day off for over four months.
Diaz arrived early each morning and on some days he didn’t return to his Miami Springs home until late at night.
On other days Diaz never went home. He slept in his car in front of the home. He made friends with a neighbor of the Gonzales’s who let him use his shower and other neighbors let him use their phones to transmit his photos. One neighborhood woman made Cuban coffee for Diaz twice a day.
“If they came for the boy, I didn’t want to miss it,” he said.
Early on, Diaz shot a close-up of a pensive-looking Elian that ended up being used by the Cuban government on propaganda posters and T-shirts.
On January 26, the monotony of chasing Elian was broken
Elian met with his grandmothers, who had flown in from Cuba. The meeting - arranged by Janet Reno - took take place at the Miami Beach home of Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, a Catholic nun. Camera crews lined the street in front of her Pine Tree Drive estate.
The following day we were back at the house on 2nd Street.
Sometime in February - was it March? - the police took control of the street. They erected barricades across the street from the Gonzalez home, and the press was asked to stay behind those barricades.
Some of the photographers who had been there since the beginning settled into a routine. Many decided the best way to wait out the day was on a lawn chair with an umbrella attached and a full ice chest by their side.
Because the view of Elian’s house and yard was now partially blocked, many photographers purchased tall ladders. Some TV networks erected canopies that shielded their photographers from the sun.
One enterprising news photographer amused himself and designed a “Camp Elian Press Card” which he laminated. The “press card” was an instant hit with the media hordes. Many attached strings to the card and hung it around their necks; just like a real press pass.
Another designed a “Camp Elian” T-shirt. It was black with a contrasting yellow cartoon figure of a grinning Elian flashing his trademark” V” for victory sign. Underneath the picture the legend read: “Camp Elian…All day… all night.” Ten bucks a pop for one of those.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno VS. The Miracle Child
February became March and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno tried repeatedly to convince the Miami family to turn the boy over peacefully and voluntarily to authorities so that he could be reunited with his father who had traveled to Washington. The family refused and appealed Reno’s decision.
On March 21, a federal judge upheld Reno’s authority in the case, which the family continued to defy.
The crowd of supporters in front of the home continued to grow in size.
They carried signs denouncing Janet Reno and when the cameras were turned on them they began chanting, as if on cue.
The supporters also hung posters, paintings of Elian and his dead mother and Cuban and American flags on the chain link fence surrounding the home; so many that the home looked like it’s under siege, which of course, it was.
Elian spent much of his time inside the 2nd Street home, or in the back yard playing on a swing set or splashing in a wading pool.
Sometimes he emerged from the house, carried on the shoulders of his great uncle and greeted crowds of the faithful who pressed against the fence to catch a glimpse of him, or if they were lucky, they got to touch him. Some in the crowd believed that Elian had spiritual powers.
Thursday, April 13, was an important day for the boy’s great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez.
Janet Reno had given him until 2pm to turn the boy over to immigration authorities at Opa-Locka airport.
2:00 PM deadline and Lazaro dug in his heels and defied Reno’s deadline.
There would be no caravan to Opa-Locka.
The street outside the home filled with demonstrators and a small army of celebrities and politicians showed up to support the family. Many of them joined hands and formed a prayer circle.
Lawyers for the family filed more appeals but Elian’s saga neared its end game.
On Saturday, April 16, the Herald ran a story that painted a picture of Lazaro Gonzalez as beaten but still defiant: “Cranked up on adrenaline, applause and shots of Cuban coffee, Gonzalez tells hundreds of supporters outside his rented house that Elian Gonzalez is not going back to Cuba - defying a federal order.
” ‘El nino se queda aqui,’ Lazaro Gonzalez says in Spanish. ‘The child stays here.’ “
The Government had decided to take the boy by force
Shortly after 5am on the morning of Saturday, April 22, federal immigration agents arrived at the house on NW 2nd Street to take the boy. The agents were in and out of the house in less than 3 minutes.
Dozens of cameramen and still photographers, perched on ladders across the street from the home were jolted awake and sprung into action.
But some photographers were caught off-guard.
A Sun-Sentinel photographer had gone down the street for take-out pizza and arrived back at the house after the boy had been taken. Another photographer shot the scene but then discovered she had removed the memory card from her camera. She got nothing. Another photographer was taking pictures of the crowd with a wide angle lens and didn’t have time to change to a telephoto lens before the agents were gone.
AP photographer Alan Diaz was ready.
He had been waiting for this moment for over 4 months.
Diaz was staked out by the chain link fence that surrounded the Gonzalez house. Hearing a commotion in the back of the house, he vaulted the fence and ran to the front door. Someone let him in and pointed to a back bedroom where Elian was hiding in a closet with one of the fishermen who rescued him. Diaz barged in and waited for the arrival of the INS agents.
As soon as they came in Diaz started shooting with his Nikon D1 and Tamron 28-105mm zoom lens. Diaz managed to get 11 images before the agents left.
I wasn’t at the house. I opted out of working the overnight gig. But at about 5:30am, my phone rang. A Reuters photo editor in Washington simply said, “They’ve taken the boy,” and then hung up.
I got dressed and by the time I hit the streets the first scenes of anger were playing out at major Miami intersections. Dumpsters had been pushed into the street and set on fire. Broken glass and rocks littered Calle Ocho.
Meanwhile, Alan Diaz’s photo was being shown repeatedly on cable news channels and by Saturday afternoon, the photo started appearing on posters that cropped up in Little Havana with the words “Federal Child Abuse” printed over the image of the frightened boy.
A year later, Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize - journalism’s most prestigious award - for his iconic photo of the agents taking Elian at gunpoint.
Much has been written about the rifts caused in this community by the Elian affair. And with the 10th anniversary of the boy’s seizure on April 22 fast approaching, tens of thousands more words will be written and printed.
But perhaps the entire affair can best be summed up in a paragraph written by Jim DeFede of Miami New Times and published on April 20, 2000, just two days before the boy’s seizure: “Within segments of the Cuban-American community there is a belief that Elian Gonzalez is a messiah of sorts, protected by God and sent here to expedite the fall of Fidel Castro. Unfortunately I don’t see it that way. Elian’s greatest impact has always been centered on Miami, not Havana.
“Through no fault of his own, this six-year-old boy has proven to be the single greatest destructive force in South Florida since Hurricane Andrew.”
Above: Elian Gonzalez on his 15th birthday.
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