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Elian Raid Legally Justified but breaks Little Havana's Heart

 
Little Havana. From the day the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals granted Elian's Miami relatives a stay ordering Elian to be kept in the U.S. pending the appeal of his application for Asylum, I knew just how it was going to end.

In my live TV reports from Miami to NBC4 in Washington I said, "What is clear is that this 6-year-old who was saved from the sea over Thanksgiving will be spending Easter Sunday in the U.S. The only question will be if he will be here at the home of his Miami relatives, or with his father."

It was Good Friday, clearly the day was charged with religious, political and legal significance as far as Elian's fate. It didn't seem possible that U.S. Attorney Janet Reno would be able to ignore the plea of Elian's father Juan Miguel who went on TV asking for support from the American people. In Little Havana where I mingled easily with the crowd of about 400 people keeping a vigil at the end of the street where Elian lived, Cuban exiles told me they had no sympathy for Juan Miguel. Why hadn't he come here to Miami immediately when his son was saved? Why wouldn't he come now? And yet it was clear to me that Juan Miguel's attorney Greg Craig was not going to allow his client to risk confrontations in Miami with the relatives or the crowd who would try to convince him to stay in the U.S. with his son. To me, being a reporter and a lawyer, the law was clear. A natural parent has a right superior to all others to have custody of a child, unless they are shown to be unfit. Elian's Miami relatives had failed to make this a custody case when the State Court dismissed the matter and told them not to reapply. Juan Miguel had a right to his long awaited reunion. Word spread among the media that the government could come for Elian at any time. We were sure his relatives and the community knew this as well. I figured it was going to have to be under raid-like conditions, but I thought media cameras would be shielded from showing pictures of a crying child being taken away in the darkness. The word at that hour was that negotiations were taking place and a federal Mediator might be used.

 
As I left the cordoned off media area in front of Elian's relative's home and walked the street of neatly kept houses in the neighborhood I was struck by the patriotism and religious fervor of the Cuban American community. There was much flag waiving. Both Cuban and U.S. flags were carried. "This was not an anti-Cuban or anti-American protest," one of the residents told me, "It's anti-Castro."

Some say the Cuban Americans who held their vigil for Elian, were extremists. I know over the years there have been plenty of reports about Cuban exiles planting bombs at radio stations, newspapers and attacking opponents within the Miami community. But what I saw that Good Friday as the sun set was a peaceful group of people who prayed for justice as they saw it. They sang songs, and listened to speeches. A group called MAR, Mothers Against Repression, recited the Rosary. The community n Little Havana felt it was divine intervention that caused the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rule in favor of keeping Elian in the U.S. while his asylum appeal was pending. Now they were seeking a bigger miracle.

 
A resident of the neighborhood, Renaldo Ramos had erected a life size figure in front of his house. He told me its St. Lazaros, "For Cubans a powerful saint to guard Elian, keep him safe, keep him here, as we pray for a miracle." He went on to explain more about St. Lazaros, who just by coincidence had the same name as Elian's Uncle . "He brought Jesus back to life. He takes care of the sick. He performs a lot of miracles. We want him to do a miracle here." Ramos had a rubber stamp which he used to print on dollar bills the slogan, "Elian belongs in the USA" Ramos figured he's stamped about 200 thousand dollars and hoped the currency would carry the message across the country.

In the next block, a man was handcuffed to a cross. Antonio Albanes looked out over the crowd. He had come here from Key West he said, "to feel how the Lord suffered." He was certain, "the Lord sent Elian to unite everybody."

 
But in the pre dawn darkness Federal agents carrying weapons moved in and snatched away Elian over the protests of the 30 or so who maintained their vigil all night.

A call woke me up at 5:25 A.M. from NBC4 in Washington telling me that Elian had been removed from his relatives' home. I was staying with my parents an hour north of Little Havana where I had taken my sons for a family visit during their spring break from school. My father said, "Take the car, it's fully insured." But I didn't want to chance it. I didn't know if there would be a protest, and if so, where I could leave his car safely. So I recruited my 85-year-old father, Al Gordon to drive me into Little Havana. As we raced down I-95, we were passed by Miami-Dade Police Patrol cars with their lights flashing, speeding south as reinforcements.

As we got to within three blocks of the House where Elian had been taken from, we hit a police roadblock. I directed my father to the nearest parking lot and told him to try to buy a Cuban flag to put in his car window so he would be safe. I took one cell phone with me and left another with him and set off by foot into the neighborhood that was waking up to the news that Elian had been taken. People hit the streets on foot and in cars, honking their horns in protest. I ran past a line of helmeted police in riot gear carrying clear plastic shields. This unit is called the "Field Force, stood ready to respond to "hot spots." I asked the Lieutenant in charge if there were any. He said "a few."

 
As I made my way into to media area in front of what had been Elian's house, all order had disappeared. People filled the street pressing up against the fence where we had seen Elian playing so often. There was a feeling of loss, sorrow and disbelief. People hugged each other and cried. There was a baby mounted on a cross. Signs said "Clinton-Reno Crucifixion of Elian." People yelled "Communista".

I overheard a woman dressed in black talking to a reporter from a Spanish TV station. This was Dr. Lydia Usategui, a child psychiatrist who had spent the night at Elian's home. You've seen here in the videotape of the agents coming for Elian. She's sitting in the street in tears with her arms spread as if on a cross. She said when the INS agents came, "They told me I could go into the house. But they came with rifles, yelling 'get down on the floor'. They had us lay face down and pointed their rifles at us. They tear gassed us. Then I heard someone yell, "Bingo, Bingo, Bingo," I knew that mean they had Elian and the operation was over. This is a disaster for the child. It's the worst thing they could have done."

I couldn't get on the air live because an NBC special report had preempted our NBC4 newscast in Washington. I took Dr. Usategui over to the MSNBC reporter who was reporting live. Ron Blume was assigned here from Little Rock, Arkansas, and at my suggestion immediately began interviewing the child psychiatrist live on the air.

In TV news you often give in order to get. After Blume had finished his report, he began heading out of the neighborhood to another location outside the police perimeter where we were getting reports protesters were already beginning to mass. I asked if he could get me on the air. I was scheduled for a live report at 9:08 a.m. and had nothing but my cell phone with a dying battery to use. He said he had a satellite truck waiting at West Flagler and 27th and we went running off to find it. When we got there, the SAT Link engineer put up the shot on the "bird" and an NBC camera crew got me on the air. Ron Blume acted as my producer talking in my earpiece to inform me that he had 30 seconds of police arresting protesters that he could "roll hot" from the truck and mix into my live coverage. Within minutes I was on the air in Washington bringing live pictures of protesters and the angry reaction out of Little Havana. The intersection behind me was filled with police in riot gear and the crowd was beginning to get angry, cars and trucks blared their horns constantly. Within a short time protesters would set tires and trash on fire in that intersection. In all more than 300 arrests would be made.

My station in Washington was glad to get the coverage. None of the other stations in the Nations Capitol had a local reporter in Little Havana. I had been there because I had taken my kids to be with their grandparents. I sensed that the story, which I had previously covered in Washington and Bethesda, was moving to Miami. And, I believe in the old news adage, "It's better to be lucky than good."

I ran the seven blocks to the lot where I had left my father hoping he was okay. As I rounded the last corner, I saw a sight that made me laugh. There he was in his car waiving a Cuban flag. I pulled out the still camera I had been carrying and took one of him. It turned out to be the last shot on the roll. "It IS better to be lucky . . . "

 
My 85-year-old father has a story he now tells all who will listen about how he was part of that historic day. He had gotten out his car when we first arrived, and befriended one of the few Cubans who spoke English. He asked for a cup of coffee and was taken to a small café where he was given a small cup of Cuban coffee. When he asked where he could buy a Cuban flag he was told it was too early, stores were not yet open. Then someone came by carrying two flags. My dad asked how much the fellow would take for one. The man proudly handed it to him at no charge. For an hour my father stood on that street corner waiving the flag, cars honking their horns, Cubans coming up to talk to him. Al Gordon doesn't speak Spanish, but many Cuban Americans came up to talk to him. He listened to them all, understanding nothing. Then he'd smile broadly and say "si."

Photo Essay: Elian Raid Legally Justified but breaks Little Havana's Heart

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