The dramatic, pre-dawn raid by machine-gun toting federal agents to snatch 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives might never have happened had a recently publicized government memo been taken more seriously two years ago, claims a public interest law firm.
The international custody battle, involving the youthful lone survivor of a capsized Cuban boat headed for U.S. shores and culminating in the violent, Easter-weekend confrontation, captivated the world’s attention during the spring of 2000.
According to recent media accounts, an internal U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service memo indicating Elian’s father – with whom INS ultimately sided in deciding to send the boy back to Cuba — might actually have been coerced by the Cuban government, was made public last week. The memo surfaced during hearings held in the case of an INS agent who accuses the agency of harboring an anti-Cuban bias, especially in its handling of the Elian Gonzalez asylum case.
The press reports indicated a memo authored by INS attorney Rebeca Sanchez-Roig was first made public April 9.
The document, however, was obtained by the Washington, D.C.-based legal watchdog group Judicial Watch and posted on its website in the spring of 2000. The public interest law firm also drew up a press release concerning the memo.
The only new information to surface April 9 was a handwritten note by Sanchez-Roig at the bottom of her memo referring to an order by then-INS Commissioner Doris Meissner to destroy or delete all copies of it. But the information contained in that note also was known outside of the INS office a full two years ago.
The memo, a summary of an INS teleconference on the matter, was produced at a hearing for special agent Rick Ramirez, whose corruption and discrimination case before the Merit System Protection Board in Miami was brought by Judicial Watch.
The memo indicated that the U.S. government had reason to believe Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was being coerced, monitored and coached by Cuban government operatives in his statements.
The memo specified that Elian’s father had made his “own attempts to depart Cuba,” and had made two phone calls “from a pay phone in Cuba” to let his family in Miami know that Elian was coming. In addition, “the Cuban government installed what somebody described as a speaker phone” in the father’s home in Cuba so that Cuban government agents could coach him on what to say.
‘We were kicked in the face’
Why did the major media ignore much of the critical available information? A prominent Cuban-American editor in Miami, who declined to be named, explained that the press and the public “didn’t want to hear” it.
“Cuban-Americans are not politically correct,” he said.
The editor added that had the memo been covered well at the time it was made public, “more people would have voted against Al Gore.”
The editor called it a “very sorry and dirty affair, a terrible thing. Nobody believed us.”
The Cuban-American community was talking about all of the things covered in this memo, he said.
“We were kicked in the face,” the editor said. “The major media and the Clinton administration presented it as though we deserved [the outcome].”
Chris Farrell of Judicial Watch believes the core issues largely were ignored because the events surrounding Elian were chaotic and “all a blur.”
“People went for the easy, quick no-brainer story, as opposed to addressing the deeper issues of policy decision-making and analysis,” he said.
Farrell recalls there was no shortage of stories covering the “emotionalism” of “people waving their arms in front of the home,” but the most important issues largely were ignored.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Farrell said. “Media should have been paying attention to this, they should have looked at it, evaluated it, weighed it. It would have had an impact on Elian staying in the United States. People would have demanded a hearing as to whether or not the father was being coerced.”
Another member of the Miami Cuban-American community believes that Cubans are sometimes caricatured as being overly emotional and overreacting to political issues.
“There’s some truth to that,” he said. “We don’t always pick our battles well. As a result, sometimes when we cry wolf nobody listens.”
But he insisted that the evidence indicates that the Clinton administration hid key information, and he wonders if Fidel Castro didn’t “have something” on Clinton, causing the former president to allow Castro to call the shots.
Judicial Watch chairman and general counsel Larry Klayman believes Castro may have had some knowledge of a Clinton/Gore-China connection that would have proved embarrassing were it revealed.
Klayman has blasted Attorney General John Ashcroft for ongoing and repeated failure to respond to allegations of obstruction of justice and anti-Latino racism at the Miami INS office.