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Will Elian Gonzalez's Father Ever Get His Son Back?

Aired April 6, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ, FATHER OF ELIAN GONZALEZ (through translator): I just arrived in Washington where I hope I will soon be able to embrace my son, Elian Gonzalez Batone (ph), for the first time in over four months.


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, Elian's father arrives in the United States. Will he soon go home with his son?

ANNOUNCER: From Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the crossfire, Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois and Republican Congressman Ileana Ros- Lehtinen from Florida, a member of the International Relations Committee.

MATALIN: Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE. Juan Miguel Gonzalez arrived from Cuba this morning to reclaim his son Elian. The father, his wife and Elian's half-brother reported at the home of Cuba's diplomat to the United States in a Washington, D.C. suburb.

This morning, Elian's father issued a stinging statement.


GONZALEZ (through translator): I'm here with my wife and 6- month-old son. This is Elian's true family, and we love him very much.


MATALIN: Diplomatic immunity on the Cuban interests section house has been lifted, which means the Cuban Gonzalez family is technically on free soil. The Miami Gonzalez family continues to resist the voluntary return of Elian and cites Juan Miguel's combative behavior as evidence of Castro's continuing control.

INS mediators made little headway today at a reunion effort while protesters keep vigil at Elian's Miami home and media hordes surround Elian's father, who tomorrow will meet with Attorney General Janet Reno. Today he was offered help to -- quote -- "live in freedom," that is defect, from a bipartisan trio of congresspersons, including one of our guests tonight.

So the Cuba CROSSFIRE continues: Will Elian ever go home? What is his home, Cuba or the United States? When and where will he see his father? -- Bill.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congresswoman, here we go again. Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), FLORIDA: Glad to be here. Thank you.

PRESS: For months, you and other relatives of Elian Gonzalez in Miami have said that only the father can speak for this little boy, and only the father can speak for him on U.S. soil. Well, he's here. He's on U.S. soil, as Mary pointed out, in a house that's been freed of diplomatic immunity.

So why haven't the Cuban family released this boy voluntarily already to his father?

ROS-LEHTINEN: And they're certainly willing to. They want that opportunity. I find it incredible that even though I have spoken to Elian today, this father, who loves him so much, doesn't go to Miami. He comes to D.C. He holds a press conference, and he has yet to pick up the phone and speak to Elian or speak to Lazaro, his great uncle.

Now, I'm not going to doubt his motives, but the family would like the opportunity to speak freely to the father. We know that Castro has been controlling the shots from the very beginning and he's going to control them to the very end.

This family continues to have the same position. They would like to speak to the father and they would like the father to speak from his heart. They believe that if he's allowed to, perhaps things might be different.

PRESS: No, but you just said they're willing to. The fact is they haven't. My question is, why haven't -- I mean, words -- we've heard enough words. Let's see some action. Let's see them agree: Here's the boy, here's the father, put them together. What are they waiting for?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Absolutely. And I think that's what we're asking the father. What are you waiting for, Juan Miguel? Get on a plane, go to where your son. Is know as a mother that's what I would do. I would be with my child. I would not be holding a press conference. I would be there hugging and kissing and praying with my child.

We don't know what behavior is motivating Juan Miguel's actions, but they're certainly mystifying the family. And they're saying, we're here, we're waiting, come on over, and let's talk. Let's talk about the situation.

You know, Castro manipulates every part of being in Cuba, and now the Cuban interests section, and still Castro's goons are all over him. We had the grandmothers' visit completely monitored by Fidel Castro's thugs.

And you know, what the family wants is always what's in the best interests of Elian. And they have not veered from that.

PRESS: But wait a minute, you keep saying that. Look, you know as well as I do, the reason that Juan Miguel Gonzalez did not go to Miami is because the family has not yet agreed -- they have not yet said they will agree to immediately give him custody of the boy. Why should he go to Miami until the family says that they will comply with the law? They haven't said that.

ROS-LEHTINEN: You know, we wish...

PRESS: His attorneys -- if I just may. The family's attorneys were just on CNN putting up more conditions, more delays. They sill have not agreed to do it. Why would he go to Miami if the family doesn't agree?

And again, I ask you, isn't the family's opportunity now to show that they're really law-abiding citizens and say, OK...

ROS-LEHTINEN: They are law-abiding citizens.

PRESS: ... the father is here, here's the boy. Do it!

ROS-LEHTINEN: And in fact -- and in fact, that Janet Reno would not have interfered in the heavy-handed way that the Department of Justice had. If we went by the rule of law, this little boy would be here. He would be protected by the Cuban Adjustment Act in one year and one day. And he would have all of the protections that so many freedom-loving parents and children have enjoyed.

And what the parents that want is I hope the best for the child, and that's what the family wants. But they know what little Elian will be facing is what every Cuban child faces: no milk after the age of seven because it goes for the tourists; compulsory farm education, because in Cuba the person who owns the child is Fidel Castro.

PRESS: I'm talking about not. I'm talking about now. I'm not talking about six months from now.

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is now.

PRESS: I'm talking about now.

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is now.

PRESS: No now.

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is...

PRESS: The father is here. Where's the boy?

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is a physical education class taken -- this photo was taken this summer in Cuba, and these are little children hoisting rifles above their head. This is physical education in the elementary school curriculum in Castro's Cuba, because by the Cuban constitution and the Cuban law, the state is the one who owns the child, not the parent.

So for those who say, let's reunite Juan Miguel and Elian, we don't forget, we must not forget that in between the parent and child reunion is the heavy hand of the communist dictatorship.

That's what drove Elian's mother here. That's why she lost her live. Is her voice important? And isn't his voice important?

PRESS: Let's listen to Congressman Jackson. I'll come back to you.

MATALIN: Congressman, there's never a conservation on this topic that takes place, no matter who's involved, that doesn't include as the focal point the best interests of Elian. Let me pick up where the congresswoman left off, and I say this to you as a brand-new father. Congratulations.


MATALIN: The Cuban spokesman here said the other day, although he's denying this but the reporters' notes confirm that it was said: "Elian is a possession of the Cuban government. The Cuban constitution says" -- quote -- "`The education of children and young people in the spirit'" -- "'The education of children and young people in the spirit of communism is the duty of all society.'" That is to say that individual and parental rights are subordinate to the state in Cuba.

Is that really in the best interest of Elian and his family, to go back and live in that repressive and oppressive country?

JACKSON: Mary, if representatives of the Cuban government made that statement, that's unfortunate. We've been trying to resolve a very difficult issue, a very complicated issue that takes into account historical legal precedence where we have historically ruled that children are in the best custody of their parents. They belong in the best position by being with their parents.

The Bible is very clear on this issue. The Fifth Commandment says, "Honor thy mother and thy father." And unfortunately, Elian's mother is deceased. And so now the boy must be in a position to honor his father.

His father is in the United States, and rather than the Cuban government or representatives of our government making decisions or making statements that only exacerbate the issue, we shouldn't even be involved in it at that level.

MATALIN: But let me say again Cuba -- you bring up a good point with the Fifth Commandment. Cuba is a godless country. When the grandmothers came here, one grandmother said to hell with God. We're sending him back to a country -- and his father, who is clearly under pressure where he's not free to express himself and Elian will not be free to lead the life that he could be leading here. And let me ask you again as you a new father about the psychological damage. Janet Reno sent her friend, a nun, to visit -- to sit in on the meeting with the grandmothers and Elian, and this representative of Janet Reno's and the church was convinced before the meeting that Elian should be returned immediately. After the meeting and seeing Elian with his mother here, his 21-year-old cousin, whom he has transferred this -- his maternal bond to, she said he should stay here.

The psychologists who are looking at this case and the sister also say that the psychological damage to this child would be akin to being orphaned twice.

Isn't that -- aren't we -- wouldn't we be conspirators in psychological damage of little Elian?

JACKSON: Mary, this issue is not the psychological damage of Elian. This is a child who does not drive a car. He drives a big wheel. This is a young child who is not watching CROSSFIRE tonight. He watches "Romper Room." The issue is the psychological evaluation of the parent, and the parent, Mr. Gonzalez, it was determined by Reverend Joan Campbell from the National Council Of Churches, along with INS who went to Cuba, interviewed relatives, family and friends, and determined that Mr. Gonzalez is fit to be a parent.

He is here in the United States.

There are really three dimensions to this issue: There's nature, there's the issue of law, and there's the issue of morality.

My wife and I just had a baby three weeks ago, and our love and bond with our daughter is greater than our love and bond, or it's bigger than any government: Cuban, American; capitalist, socialist or communist ideology. I wouldn't put any government between a father and a son, a mother and a child, and nor should we attempt to do that.

MATALIN: We're not -- let's say we're in total agreement there. No one is disagreeing that the father and the son, and the half- brother and the new mother...

JACKSON: Then if we're in total agreement....

MATALIN: ... should be reunited. Why not let them be reunited, stay on this soil? And what do you make of the congresswoman's suggestion that this family be allowed to stay here?

JACKSON: The opening of the program indicated that immunity has been lifted over the home that Mr. Gonzalez is in. He presently has the ability to defect and make the determination to move to the United States.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Oh my golly! He's under total Castro control.

JACKSON: He certainly does, Ileana.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Whose home is this? This is the Cuban interests section. Who is surrounding him? All of Castro's thugs.

JACKSON: I'm afraid if he were in Miami...

ROS-LEHTINEN: For us to say that technically -- oh please.

JACKSON: If he were in Miami right now, he would be held hostage...

ROS-LEHTINEN: He's no freer than he was in Havana.

JACKSON: ... to the press and he'd be held hostage to citizens...

ROS-LEHTINEN: He is no freer now than if he were in...

JACKSON: ... who are subverting the Constitution.

PRESS: Congresswoman, first of all, I want to ask you -- get back to the photo. But I just want to clarify one point, because I know Mr. Fernandez at the Cuban interests section. I called him as soon as I read that statement in The Washington Times. I couldn't believe he said it. He denied he said it. He pointed out to me that he used the pronoun "it" is a possession of the Cuban government, not he. And here's his -- I want to read you...

ROS-LEHTINEN: Whether he said it or not, it's in the constitution.

PRESS: Please, please, please. Here's his next statement -- quote -- "If it is necessary, we will give up immunity of the residence in order to avoid that anyone could use the argument that the boy should not go to Cuban territory."

Just for the record, it's clear...

ROS-LEHTINEN: That doesn't matter. Doesn't matter.

PRESS: ... it's clear he was talking about the house, not the boy.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Even if we declare -- even we declare the Cuban interests section itself to be on U.S. soil, it doesn't matter. Those technical terms don't...

PRESS: Well...

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... matter to Castro's thugs. And these are people who have been brought up under tyranny. They know that Castro, whether he's physically next to you, he is always there.

PRESS: See, the point that you make...

ROS-LEHTINEN: We are free people, and we can't conceive of what communism is. We think that it doesn't happen, but you know, that's what drives us to die on these shores trying to get here. PRESS: Please, if I can. What -- I think every answer -- your answer proves is that you see this, again, as part of this effort against Castro rather than dealing with the little boy and his father. So I want to...

This is your photo.

ROS-LEHTINEN: It is about a little boy. It is about all of those little boys.

PRESS: This is your photo. You know, I'm not going to respond to this photo because I'm a liberal Democrat. I want to let a conservative Republican respond to you on this photo.

And this conservative Republican is Congressman Steve Largent from Oklahoma, who wrote in The New York Times -- quote -- "Some conservatives see this case as a long-sought opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of Fidel Castro. Let me say unequivocally" -- Congressman Largent -- "that I am second to none in my dislike for Mr. Castro's totalitarian regime. But let's be reasonable, Elian is a little boy who has lost his mother and desperately needs his father."

You're just using him...


PRESS: ... to stick Castro in the eye.

ROS-LEHTINEN: No, we're not. But let me tell you, I wish that you would contact Elian and I wish that you would ask him in whatever kind of setting you want what Elian wants. Don't you think that his voice matters.

JACKSON: Ileana, this is a 6-year-old child.

ROS-LEHTINEN: This is a 6-year-old child that is perfectly happy.

JACKSON: We don't tell 6-year-old's in our country that they can't do their homework, that they can't go to school...

ROS-LEHTINEN: You know, this idea that he has been kidnapped and kept away from his father...

JACKSON: ... they can play sick and not go to work.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... is just outrageous.

JACKSON: This is a 6-year-old child, and therefore...

ROS-LEHTINEN: A child who has formed a real bond with this family.

JACKSON: ... adults can have a conversation about this.

ROS-LEHTINEN: That is very unfair. JACKSON: Mr. Gonzalez is the appropriate person to talk for him.

PRESS: This is great, but we really -- it's much easier to hear if only one person speaks at a time. So we'll take a break. And when we come back, we'll ask another question: Has Elian Gonzalez, meanwhile, become a hot fund-raising tool for Florida Republicans?


PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. The Florida Republican Party's apologized for a fund-raising letter that it mailed using Elian's name. But now Florida Congressman Bill McCollum, running for the Senate, has written a similar pitch for dough. Is little Elian being kept in Florida to help politicians raise campaign dollars? And what role is politics playing in this whole process, on both sides?

The politics of Elian and his future, our debate tonight with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican of Florida, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois -- Mary.

MATALIN: May I just set the record straight that Jeb Bush, Governor Jeb Bush immediately objected and pulled that letter...

PRESS: Which he did. Which he did.

MATALIN: ... but let's go to politics, congressman...

PRESS: The first letter, not the second.

MATALIN: Nature, morality, laws, what you said this case comes down to. Your vice president, your presidential nominee, the leader of your party wants to change the current law. He's supporting legislation that would take these kinds of cases away from the INS -- that is unaccompanied minor refugees -- and turn these cases over to family court, adjudication in a body that he thinks in this instance would serve better the interests of Elian and his family. What's wrong with that position?

JACKSON: Well, I think Vice President Al Gore might be showing good political leadership, but he's not showing good moral leadership. And I'm of the opinion he should be choosing principle over politics in this particular case.

Now, Vice President Gore came before the Congressional Black Caucus and said that in this campaign, the issue in 2000, a significant issue was the issue of federalism: that the appointments to the federal Supreme Court were going to be a big factor in this. He took that position when he went to South Carolina and challenged George Bush for taking on the Confederate flag and speaking at Bob Jones University.

But when he comes to Elian, he says that he doesn't believe that the INS decision or that the federal law is the prevailing law, that the custody battle and the custody law, family court law, the state issue is more -- has more precedence than federal law. And so I'm very concerned, and a number of Democrats have expressed that concern to the vice president.

MATALIN: Well, they have, and what they're saying is that it's a testament to his lack of convictions and his prowess for pandering. And the objections have come most loudly from the Black Caucus.

So do you think this undermines his support in this very tight election in a very tight state: Florida and New Jersey?

JACKSON: Both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush have taken the same position. And clearly, there is a major void in national political leadership on the question of whether or not this child should be returned to his father and whether or not federal law for immigration cases should be governing in the Elian case.

I am of the opinion that the attorney general of the United States and the president of the United States are right in this case, and I would hope that the vice president would support his president's decision.

MATALIN: Do you think the Department of Justice and INS has handled this case properly from the beginning? There's been a lot of criticism, including from the administration, that they boggled it from the very beginning.

JACKSON: Well, there has been sufficient amount of boggling from -- on both sides. I would have never written the INS letter that said that the state court had some jurisdiction in this particular issue. That was unfair, and it was very unfortunate that the administration allowed such a legal document to go forward.

But the fact of the matter is Janet Reno, along with attorney general -- assistant Attorney General Eric Holder, have proceeded very cautiously in this case. We've not allowed the U.S. Marshals to go in and take Elian from his relatives in Cuba. We have not deported him immediately.

The legal battle continues, but it has to be handled very carefully because everyone is concerned about Elian's psychological well-being.

MATALIN: I know. One quick question, though: In the meeting today with the INS, the family is -- those meetings are looking like they're breaking down because the Miami family said the INS would not promise not to take little Elian in the middle of the night, which is what you just said they said they weren't going to do.

JACKSON: Well, one of the problems is the goal posts appear to keep changing. When the father comes to the United States, the goal post appears to change. Before we were told that he would not be allowed to leave Cuba, the goal post apparently changed.

The boy needs to be immediately returned to his father. And I would hope, in good judgment, that Mr. Gonzalez would remain in the United States until the legal issues are resolved and then make the determination to go home. PRESS: Congresswoman, on this -- very, very quickly, on these political fund-raising letters. I mean, Governor Bush -- Governor Jeb Bush in Florida called them inexcusable, at least the first letter. You would agree with that, wouldn't you?

ROS-LEHTINEN: Yes, yes, I think it was -- I have not seen either letter, but certainly he made the right decision in disowning anything.

And you know, following up just on the psychological part, one of the things that I would like to see the Miami family do is for Elian's own protection is have him evaluated, because I'd say that in just a matter of days if he is back in Cuba, the father will say that Elian was given drugs, that he was sexually abused, that he was manipulated in some way. And I would like some kind of fair evaluation to take place before that brainwashing begins in Cuba, because I guarantee you that will be a re-education of Elian the moment that he gets back.

JACKSON: Ileana, respectfully, I think psychologists and psychiatrists should be used for the purpose of determining how Elian is returned, but not whether or not he should be returned.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, and we would like them to evaluate his fitness right now. How is he adapting? What is the bond that he has established with his Miami relatives? Because I think that we're facing a second traumatic experience for Elian. You say honor thy mother and thy father, no one has honored his mother so far.

PRESS: Congresswoman, I'm almost out of time, I have to ask you about another letter, a letter even before Juan Miguel Gonzalez arrived in the United States that you and two other members of Congress wrote basically inviting him to defect and promising to assist him if he wanted to defect. My question to you is,

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, we would like a conversation with him.

PRESS: ... don't you accept the fact that A) that's his decision, that B) he can if he wants to, and that C) some people prefer to live in Cuba.

ROS-LEHTINEN: I'll tell you this: if Juan Miguel is speaking his own mind, he would be the only person of 11 million enslaved people in Cuba who are allowed to express their own opinions. We don't know what...

PRESS: That is so outrageous.

ROS-LEHTINEN: ... communism is like. You guys think that it's easy to lose -- to sacrifice what little you have to come here? Why do people do it? Because they are not free in Cuba. Freedom means so much when you don't have it.

PRESS: He's here...

ROS-LEHTINEN: And Juan Miguel may be free to speak his mind, if he is he's one of the only ones. I hope he has it. PRESS: He's here now, but he's not free to have his own son. That's a shame.

ROS-LEHTINEN: No one is free in Cuba.

JACKSON: Or to think, that's what she just said.

ROS-LEHTINEN: No one is free in communism.

PRESS: Or to what?

JACKSON: Or to think, that's what she just said.

MATALIN: Congresswoman, thank you so much.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you.

MATALIN: Thanks for bringing the picture.

JACKSON: Thanks, Mary.

MATALIN: Congratulations.

JACKSON: Thank you very much. Thanks, Bill.

MATALIN: Congressman, parenthood, parenthood.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Well, we have to get him with it -- Romper Room -- oh, man! He's out of it.


MATALIN: Teletubbies, Teletubbies.

ROS-LEHTINEN: Whoa! You're out of it, Jesse.

MATALIN: We'll be right back with our best choices for television when we return. Stay with us.


PRESS: You know, Mary, Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois joined Congressman Largent today in saying that the boy should be returned immediately to his father and they ought to be allowed to return to Cuba if they want to. And Largent, I think, said it best also when he said that this is a question of family values and you can't believe in family values and allow any government to come between a boy and his father. This is the time. Are you for family values or not? That's the question.

MATALIN: This is such a red herring.

PRESS: Tell Steve Largent.

MATALIN: No one is against the reuniting of the father and the son. What we're saying is that the father is not free to say that he wants to stay here and live in freedom.

PRESS: Who are you to speak for him?

MATALIN: He's surrounded by thugs.

PRESS: He's here on American soil.

MATALIN: He originally called the uncle and said, Elian is coming, and when the uncle called him and said, he's saved, he's safe, he said, please take care of my boy.

PRESS: You believe that uncle?

MATALIN: You're the -- only a liberal would say that someone chooses to live in communism under a dictatorship where there is no freedom, there is no prosperity, there is no choice.

PRESS: Only someone who believes in family values, liberal or conservative, would say that a boy belongs with his father. That's the end of the story.

MATALIN: With his father in freedom.

PRESS: Get your politics out of it. With his father, period.

From the left, I am Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: Father and freedom.

From the right, I am Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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