Reno stubbornly insists that she has taken the right course.
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by Ana Simo
APRIL 20, 2000. After five months of self-inflicted legal twists and turns, capped by a stunning humiliation last week at the hands of Miami's Lazaro Gonzalez, Attorney-General Janet Reno now has 6-year old Elian Gonzalez back on her lap.
The boy now comes accompanied by a mind-boggling 16-page ruling from a federal appeals court in Atlanta. The court harshly criticized Reno for having ignored the 6-year-old's application for asylum in the U.S. against his father's wishes. The court was referring to an INS form bearing a childishly scrawled "ELIAN" on the signature line that Lazaro Gonzalez and his lawyers had been peddling from court to court for the last few months.
The Atlanta appeals court also opined that great-uncle Lazaro's attempts to seek asylum for Elian are "a substantial case on the merits". All this suggests that the unthinkable may happen on May 11th when the court hears oral arguments: Lazaro Gonzalez might win on appeal and force the INS to give Elian a full asylum hearing against his father's wishes, thus ensuring that the case, and the uprooted boy, remain ensnared in U.S. courts for many years to come.
Hard-liners guarding Lazaro's Little Havana home popped champagne bottles and danced on the streets to celebrate the court ruling, perhaps somewhat prematurely. Adding to their delight, the ruling came on April 19th, on the 39th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs debacle, when a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba was crushed within 72 hours by Cuban forces overwhelmingly supported by the population.
Elian, whose 31-year-old father wasn't even born then, was now their balm, their trophy, and their revenge. Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, 36, summed up the reaction to the ruling: "What we're seeing here is the celebration of a victory after 41 years of tyranny, betrayal, and suffering. This is what the American people and the whole world must recognize."
The Attorney-General has no one but herself to blame for this disaster. Her continued refusal to enforce the law has made a bad situation much worse.
Elian is now brainwashed, as proven by the recent POW-style video of him shaking his finger at his father. The mustachioed great-uncle and kidnapper who staged and released the tape has dug himself in even deeper in his Little Havana stuccoed bunker, basking in the adoration of a fanatical mob of Miami Cuban-Americans.
The great-uncle's political handlers and assorted hangers-onnotably the right-wing Cuban-American National Foundation and the ubiquitous Miami area mayors Joe Carollo and Alex Penelasare back in force.
The mob guarding the house where Elian is being held hostage, has now been re-energized, its fervor reaching a quasi-revivalist pitch.
All of this, thanks to Janet Reno's dickering. Cowering behind her, and not to be forgotten in this sad tale of mis-rule of law and common sense trampled, is the Clinton Administration. As always, the Administration is more concerned with running a campaign (in this case Al Gore's) than with running a country.
Reno stubbornly insists that she has taken the right course. She calls it "measured and thoughtful". Most Americans, however, increasingly see it as foot-dragging.
A recent poll shows that the public's disapproval of the government's handling of the Elian case is rising fast. Support for the boy's return to his father remains high nationwide, and tellingly higher in non-Cuban-American Florida than anywhere else.
The Attorney-General is said to prefer her own counsel and to keep her cards close to the vest. So did John Wayne, except that he'd never blink at high noon. Reno has blinked, over and over and over again since last November, no doubt to the great amusement of great-uncle Lazaro, who reportedly has called her "that old hag."
Most of what the Attorney-General has done since day one of the Elian crisis has either been wrongas in unethicalor stupid, or both.
It was stupid, and wrong, for the immigration service to hand over Elian to Lazaro Gonzalez in the first place, and even more stupid and wrong to leave him there for one day, let alone five months.
Though Reno has defended the initial INS decision as humanitarian, it reeks of preferential treatment for Cuban-Americans and a total disregard for the human rights of a parent left in Cuba.
The INS knew that Elian had a father and close family back home. The boy himself had told the doctors at the hospital, giving them his dad's phone number in Cardenas. In fact, Juan Miguel Gonzalez found out that his son was alive when one of the doctors called him in Cuba.
This raises the possibility that federal agencies operating in Miami, such as the INS, might be overly deferential to the views and values of Cuban-Americans, who control Miami-Dade County politically and economically. If the Attorney-General herself appears intimidated and indecisive in her dealings with the Miami Cuban-Americans, it is only fair to wonder how her Miami INS field office has operated all these years.
It was also stupid, and wrong, for Reno to fly to Miami to beg Lazaro Gonzalez to obey the law and return Elian to his father. She further degraded herself and her office by not making good on her latest ultimatum and reuniting father and son.
The Attorney-General of the United States seems to have forgotten that she is not a neighbor, or a family counselor, or even less an unpaid legal advisor to Little Havana kidnappers. The Attorney-General is the highest law enforcement officer of the United States.
Whether tormented by Waco or by her impending retirement in a hostile Miami, Reno's obligation is to uphold the laws of the United States. She has failed to do so. In fact, at every turn, she has suggested to the rogue relatives new and fresh ways to thwart the law. If Reno had been a judge, she would have had to recuse herself from the Elian case a long time ago.
For months, Reno has justified her inaction saying that she was trying to find the least traumatic way for Elian to be removed from his prison and to avoid violence with demonstrators. Her own psychiatric experts are now publicly saying what most Americanseven Janet Renohave known for months: that Elian is in grave physical and mental danger every second he remains in Lazaro's home.
As to violence, the threat from the mostly middle-aged Cuban-American crowds guarding the Little Havana house has been grossly exaggerated by all interested parties, from exile leaders and the media, to a Justice Department dying to find an alibi for its inaction. Miami is no Waco, as Reno is now belatedly saying. Had she, Clinton and Gore had the political will to end the circus, they could have ended it at any time with a handful of U.S. marshals, or with a larger contingent, if local police refused to control the crowds.
Getting dewy-eyed about little Elian and his poor dad won't cut it anymore. If Janet Reno does not reunite the boy with his father immediately, she will have broken her promise not just to Juan Miguel Gonzalez, but to the entire nation.
For the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit, Gonzalez v. Reno.
For Cuba's history and the Bay of Pigs, go to J.A. Sierra's The Timetable History of Cuba.
For recently declassified Bay of Pigs documents.
For Dr. Irwin Redlener's letter assessing Elian.
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