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Who Is Looking out for Elian Gonzalez's Best Interests?

Aired April 4, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, as protesters form a human chain around the Miami house of Elian Gonzalez, who is looking out for the boy's best interests and who is just looking out for their own political agenda?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters from California, and in Miami, Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Democracy Movement.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. It's never all quiet on the Elian Gonzalez front. In Miami, the little boy's relatives negotiated with the U.S. government.


SPENCER EIG, GONZALEZ FAMILY ATTORNEY: And the fact that Elian's father has requested and obtained a visa to come and visit the United States makes this the ideal time to have such a hearing, when he can participate with the Gonzalez family as a family in determining what's in the best interests of Elian for the future.


NOVAK: In Washington, Cuban diplomats negotiated with the State Department about the U.S. visit of the boy's father, laying down conditions: 28 visas for the accompanying delegation, no visit to Miami, and guarantees that Elian immediately be turned over for a return to Cuba.

And in Miami, some 80 protesters were permitted through police lines to surround the boy's house.

But the overriding political buzz concerned the vice president of the United States. In a new interview, Al Gore reiterated opposition to his own administration's call for a quick return of the 6-year-old. The vice president has upset normal political patterns, as with tonight's CROSSFIRE guests, an anti-Castro Cuban-American praising Gore, a liberal Democratic congresswoman criticizing him.

Even Bill and I have changed our outlook...


... toward the vice president, haven't we, Bill?

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Well, you can't be right on every issue, Robert.

Senor Sanchez, good evening. Thanks. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.


PRESS: I want to ask you, sir, it looks like things are coming to a head in Miami. The boy's father, Elian's father, has a visa to come to the United States, and the INS is expected to tell his Miami cousins that they should hand the boy over to his father.

When that happens, sir, will you and your supporters respect that order or try to block it?

SANCHEZ: We will do what the family is -- has been asking everybody to do, which is abide by the law. What we're doing is sending a strong signal from here of solidarity with the child and also appealing to the government that whatever is done, to be done within the context of family, a family approach and also for the best interests of this child.

PRESS: So earlier -- and there's an article in this week's "Weekly Standard" by Tucker Carlson where you're quoted as saying you're ready to shut the city down, you're ready to block the airport, you're ready to block the port of Miami. That's gone now? I mean, that's behind you? You're not going to do that? No plans for that those kinds of -- that kind of civil disobedience?

SANCHEZ: What we have said is that we will use civil disobedience only if absolutely necessary, but we have called upon the government to not bypass the legal options that Elian has available to him, and that also we urge not only the U.S. government but the Cuban government and all of the parties involved to do our best to cause this family to reunite under the same roof and be able to discuss what's best for Elian Gonzalez's future in a real family environment.

PRESS: Well, Mr. Sanchez, what Elian's father says he wants and what the INS says he should have is immediate custody of the boy when he arrives in the United States. So do you agree with that, yes or no?

SANCHEZ: Well...

PRESS: No strings attached.

SANCHEZ: We agree with that if it's done in a family context, not in the Cuban interests section, which would be like being in Cuba. We have been insistent from the beginning that there are elements around Elian's case that should be looked at by a family court, and we see no reason why in lieu of the family being able to resolve this problem, the child should not have his day in court.

NOVAK: Congresswoman Waters, I want to try and get straightened out on your position toward the vice president. When the vice president took his position, which actually he's taken for some time, you said you might reconsider your support for him for president. And then you had a talk with him, and you no longer said you were reconsidering your support.

What did he tell you to get you to change your position?

REP. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: I was stunned and caught completely off-guard when it was announced in breaking news in the middle of an interview that I was having that the president was going to support legislation.

NOVAK: President?

WATERS: The vice president, I'm sorry, was going to support legislation that would give permanent resident status to Elian and other family members. I said I would call him. I wanted to talk with him. I did that. He assured me that it was not just political, that he had been sending those signals all along, that he felt very strongly about it.

And more than that, we talked about the team and the fact that the team should have an opportunity to try and influence that decision before it is made public, and we should not be caught by surprise and blindsided with this kind of an important announcement.

NOVAK: So he convinced you that it's OK, his position was OK. Is that right?

WATERS: No, he did not. We agreed to disagree. We disagree. I still feel as I feel that Elian belongs with his father and should be returned to him.

NOVAK: You know, you mention his father, and I would like to ask you a question about his father, and I would give you some background about the father. But I have a guest questionnaire that I'm going to bring in to give you background about the father. Is that all right?

WATERS: I know a little something about the father. I met him. I talked to him.

NOVAK: I want to ask you listen to the guest question.

WATERS: I was in Cuba.

NOVAK: Is that OK, ma'am?


NOVAK: Let's listen. Let's listen to the guest question.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What some people have missed about this controversy is that the father in Castro's Cuba has not been free to say really and truly what is on his mind, because there are paid demonstrators outside of his window, and Castro has not permitted him to come here for more than four month.


NOVAK: That's a new interview on the Lifetime Network by the vice president. And of course, why -- why -- why is it that you people who are the -- who like Castro so much won't admit that this poor man is intimidated

WATERS: Why is it that you people...

NOVAK: I ask the questions.

WATERS: ... can come to these conclusions without having any basis for it?

NOVAK: Well, I'm asking you a question: Why do you believe he's not intimidated living in a police state and a brutal dictatorship?

WATERS: I have no knowledge that this man is intimidated by Castro. I do have knowledge that he very much wants to have his son back. He's kind of like any father in the United States. He loves his son.

NOVAK: How do you know he's not under tremendous pressure from this brutal dictatorship down there?

WATERS: When I visited in Cuba, he did not appear to be under any tremendous pressure.

NOVAK: You could judge that, I'm sure.

WATERS: Well, I could do better than you. You've not been there. I have.

PRESS: Getting back to Miami, Mr. Sanchez -- Senor Sanchez, can you hear me?

SANCHEZ: Yes, I can.

PRESS: Yes, I want to ask you that you just heard that -- and you know that Vice President Gore now has said that Elian and his father, his whole family, should have residency status, and he wants this settled in state family court, which is what you and the family in Miami have been saying for a long time. So are you ready to sign up for the Al Gore election campaign of 2000?

SANCHEZ: Well, I think that expression on the side of Mr. Gore is something that was welcome here in Miami. And I think it's a sincere one, because, first of all, we have heard from before that that was his position, and also that he has really not much to gain by taking that position, except the votes in South Florida. And there are a lot of Americans that are not informed about the realities of Cuba; however, they have a different position.

So I think it was a courageous statement to make. PRESS: Well, you know, Senor Sanchez, this -- all the people -- Democrats and Republicans are not all on the same side of this issue that you'd might expect. I'd like you to listen to one of the more conservative members of Congress, a Republican, Steve Largent from Oklahoma, and hear what he has to say about this case.

Please listen, I'd like to get your comment.


REP. STEVE LARGENT (R), OKLAHOMA: And frankly, I would tell you that a lot of my political brethren have been shameless in terms of dealing with this issue. And I just believe in the bottom of my heart, speaking as a father, that the best interests of this child is to have him reunited with his father as quickly as possible.


PRESS: Conservative Republican: quick, get the child back together with his father as soon as possible. He agrees with Maxine Waters. What do you say to Steve Largent?

SANCHEZ: Well, I think the child should be reunited with his father if the father is in a free environment where this child is not subjected to a lot of psychological damage if he's sent back to Cuba. We have serious concerns about what will happen to this child three or four years from now if he's returned to Cuba. If this child decides not to say what Castro wants him to say -- for example, if he decides to say that he was not kidnapped in Miami, that his mother was irresponsible but desperate when she got out Cuba, and that the people around his house were not mafia but were working people, to a totalitarian regime like Castro cannot afford for the child to say that.

PRESS: Can I just ask you -- can I just ask you a follow-up question, please?


PRESS: You know, the father wants his child back. Who are you to put any conditions on that return?

SANCHEZ: We are no one, sir. We are only human beings who are in solidarity with this child, because we know the plight of the Cuban people and the plight of many children who have died or are being oppressed. But especially, we know the intentions of this dictator with Elian Gonzalez, and we fear for his psychological well-being in the future and even his physical integrity.

PRESS: All right, we have to take a break now. When we do -- we've been talking about politics in this situation. Even religion is getting involved. We'll take a look at that when we come back.


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. If it were only Elian Gonzalez's father and his Miami relatives, it might be easier to solve, but then politics and even religion and Fidel Castro get involved, and oh boy.

Are Republicans and Democrats using Elian as a vehicle for winning states like New Jersey and Florida where there's a big Cuban- American population? We try to settle the whole problem right here tonight with Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Democracy Movement, joins us from Miami, and with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Democrat, California -- Bob.

NOVAK: Representative Waters, are you familiar with Article 38, Clause C of the Cuban constitution of 1976?

WATERS: No, I'm not.

NOVAK: It requires all Cuban boys to belong to the Union of Communist Pioneers, and as Chris Caldwell reveals in this week's edition of "The Weekly Standard," Elian has been a member of the Communist Union of Pioneers since he was 5 years old.

He will -- when he returns, he will be immediately sent into reindoctrination, re-education. How's your conscience on that, Mrs. Waters?

WATERS: I'm not fighting the battle of communism versus democracy.

NOVAK: Why not?

WATERS: This is about Elian Gonzalez. That's the problem. Too many people want to make this another kind of issue. If you want to fight with Fidel Castro, fight with him. If you want to criticize him, criticize him. If Elian's father wants to defect to the United States, let him defect.

It's about parental rights and family values! That's what this is about.

NOVAK: In other words, it doesn't make any difference to you whether he lives in a communist totalitarian society or he is sent out to summer camp for indoctrination in this Marxist mumbo-jumbo and he has a grandmother who says, God -- the hell with God, or whether he lives in the peace-loving United States. That doesn't make a bit of difference to you as long as his father is there.

WATERS: Elian was quite happy with his father. They had a happy existence.

NOVAK: How do you know that?

WATERS: He went to the barber shop with his father on weekends. He played with his father. He celebrated his birthday with his father. I was in Cuba. I talked with a lot of people. I talked with the father. I talked with the relatives. Elian was quite happy. Even the anti-Fidel Castro haters down in Miami couldn't say he wasn't a good father. They're grasping for straws now. They're desperate. They're trying to -- but everybody agrees he was a good father and they had a happy relationship.

NOVAK: Ms. Waters, I always thought you were a pretty tough, savvy politician...

WATERS: Yes, yes.

NOVAK: ... who goes up on the Hill and listens to witnesses. I am just stunned at your naivete that you think you can go into this controlled state and these people are going to give you the straight deal.

WATERS: At least it gives me a better view than those who have not been there. I talked to them...

NOVAK: That's dubious. That's extremely dubious.

WATERS: I have talked with the man. I do know this: He had pain and he had tears in his eyes, and he wants his son back. That I believe.

NOVAK: Senor Sanchez, I want to ask you about that, because over the last couple of days, suddenly, after four months, the people of Miami have been saying -- suggesting, if not charging, that Juan Gonzalez is an unfit parent for Elian Gonzalez. Do you believe that? And do you think that's fair, to raise that after four months?

SANCHEZ: The family here has done its best to not damage the already somewhat -- to not damage further the already somewhat damaged ties with the father in Cuba. And certainly, I'm not going to contribute to that. But I believe that a family court is -- if it gets a chance to hear Elian Gonzalez, we'll probably look into those aspects and find out what the true relationship between the father and the child was before this terrible incident occurred.

I must also say that I resent very much for us to be called haters of Fidel Castro. We are the victims of Fidel Castro, and certainly I would never, ever dream of sending back a child, or would have dreamed of sending back a child to Hitler's Germany much less to a dictatorship like this one, which is going to subject Elian Gonzalez to very painful -- a very painful process of -- quote/unquote -- reprogramming as Castro himself has said.

PRESS: Maxine?

WATERS: Well, let me just say this: that it is quite clear that the anti-Fidel Castro forces in Miami dislike him, hate him. You can frame it any way you want.

This is about Elian Gonzalez. No one has really made an argument that can convince me, or most people that I talk to, that this child should not be with his father. And no one can present an argument that says that this father was not a good father, that he didn't have a good relationship with this child. And that's what I'm discussing, nothing else.

NOVAK: Ms. Waters...

SANCHEZ: We struggle to see...

NOVAK: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

SANCHEZ: We struggle to see that -- I'm sorry. We struggle to see that father reunited with his son in a free environment with his family. It's not a matter of keeping a child away from his father. It's a matter of what's best for that child. And you must understand that above the right of the parent to have custody of a child is the best interests of the child or we wouldn't take away children from fathers who mistreat them in this society.

So there is an element above that, and that only element is the best interests of the child, which will be very adversely damaged if this child is sent back to Cuba with at least -- without at least having been heard by a court of law.

NOVAK: Congresswoman...


NOVAK: ... are you aware that the father has been removed from his humble home in a village where he was a Communist Party member, a security guard, I believe, and set up in one of the elite -- for the communist bigwigs in the suburbs of...

WATERS: No, no, no!

NOVAK: You don't know he's living in a government (UNINTELLIGIBLE) guest house.

WATERS: No! You said, am I worried that he's been removed, what do you mean by removed?

NOVAK: They took him out of his village and they put him in a Communist guest house in Havana. Do you know that?

WATERS: I would suggest to you...

NOVAK: Do you know that?

WATERS: ... that you don't have any documentation to talk about him having been removed. He may have asked -- he may have asked for all you know. I don't know where he's staying.

NOVAK: Do you think in the workers' paradise that you can say, I don't like this crummy little place in the village, I want to live where you big oligarchs live? Do you think that's possible?

WATERS: I don't think you know that he was removed from anywhere.

NOVAK: He was removed. I'll tell you what I can show you. I can show you on the screen the kind of play they're getting, that Fidel is making baby sounds and baby faces to the father's youngest baby.

WATERS: What does this have to do with his...


NOVAK: Because they are -- they are -- they are -- they are living up to him.

WATERS: Well, I think -- I think your imagination is absolutely...

NOVAK: It's right there. I'm not imagining that.

WATERS: ... running away from you.


NOVAK: I'm not imagining that.

Do you -- do you realize -- do you realize that Elian, when you force him back there, will now -- they will treat him as a member of the Communist elite because this is all for political purposes? Can't you see that this has nothing to do with the father? This is a political game that Castro is playing.

WATERS: Do you have any children? Do you have any children?

NOVAK: I certainly do. I've got two children and five grandchildren.

WATERS: Can you think of any conditions under which your children should have been taken from you?

NOVAK: Absolutely. If I were a communist hack in Cuba, my kids should be sent to this country.


You asked the question and you got the answer.

WATERS: You should take away all of the children who live in communist countries from their fathers and mothers.

NOVAK: If they could be that lucky. If they could be that lucky.

WATERS: You're more extreme than I ever thought you were?

NOVAK: How many communist countries are there, Maxine?

WATERS: I don't care how many there are. We're talking about...

NOVAK: I know you don't. But I do. And you should care. WATERS: ... Elian Gonzalez. Now, you want to bring all of those kids from communist countries to the United States, is that what you want?

NOVAK: It would be nice.

WATERS: Oh my goodness. How revealing, my goodness.


PRESS: Maxine, you see what I put with every night.

WATERS: My goodness.


PRESS: Bob. Thank you. Thanks, Maxine.

NOVAK: All right. Thank you very much.

WATERS: You're welcome.


NOVAK: ... I was just stunned -- stunned by the whole concept.

WATERS: You're welcome.

NOVAK: Senor Sanchez, congratulations to you and thank you very much for being with us. And Bill Press and I will be back with closing comments.

WATERS: You're going to get a lot of calls.


PRESS: Bob, you know, you do have a great family. I enjoy being with your family. I feel sorry for them sometimes. But look, that's what it's about, Bob. You ought to focus on that. It's about family. It's not about Fidel. You can't talk about this kid without talking about Fidel Castro.

NOVAK: I feel sorry for you, but I feel more sorry for Steve Largent, because he's a good guy. And he should -- he should really know that there can be no family in the workers' state. There can be no family in Cuba. They're all tools of the totalitarian dictatorship. And any little kid saved from that quagmire is a -- is a -- is a triumph for family.

PRESS: Do you realize how wrong you are? Do you know how many families there are in Cuba? Do you know how many happy families there are in Cuba, Bob?

NOVAK: Do you know what I suggest? That we send you there and keep Elian.

PRESS: Ha-ha.

NOVAK: I think I've suggested that before.

PRESS: Hey, Bob, I'll only go if I take you with me. From the left, I'm Bill Press.

NOVAK: I won't go.

PRESS: Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: On the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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