Debunking Elian

Sometime before dawn on November 20, thirteen adults and two children clambered aboard a boat hidden in a Cuban mangrove swamp. It was generous to call it a boat at all; it was a homemade job soldered together from aluminum pipes, and powered by an old 50-hp outboard. Almost immediately, the engine failed. After rowing the boat back to shore for repair, the mother of one child had second thoughts and took her little girl to stay with a relative. The mother of Elian Gonzalez decided to keep her 5 year-old with her as the boat was launched again two days later.

Even if you have closely followed the Elian story, there are almost certainly details in the above paragraph that you didn't know. Fewer than one percent of the newspaper reports even mentioned that his journey began on a boat, not an inner tube; only two lone stories have noted how the deathtrap was cobbled together from irrigation pipes.

According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs' Newswatch, 360 Elian stories aired on network evening news in five months. If this continues, his will be the first story to surpass the O.J. Simpson record (431 reports in a little over six months of 1994). But despite this massive news coverage, aspects of the story have been widely ignored. Some appeared in the Florida press only; others appeared in a single national paper or wire service, but weren't picked up by the media at large. As a result, distortions and untruths are added without challenge.

It is particularly important to have rigorous accuracy in this story because the tale has become a powerful myth, and myths can be dangerous things. Not so long ago, there was an overarching myth about the "New World Order." Parts of it had grains of truth; federal agents at places like Ruby Ridge and Waco made mistakes that killed innocents. Thrown into the mix were other elements that weren't true at all -- government plans to confiscate guns, hovering black helicopters, and the whole conspiratorial mess. The result was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh didn't kill those innocent people because he was a Branch Davidian seeking revenge; he murdered because he was waging battle against a myth.

The Elian story has generated exactly that sort of emotion. Since authorities took the boy from his Miami relatives, death threats were received by a deputy police chief who was merely seen in a car with INS and border patrol agents. Cuban- American jurors told a Miami judge that they could not consider giving prosecutors a fair hearing. The impact zone extends far beyond the community of Cuban ex-pats to any conservatives that have made Elian a Cause. On SF Bay Area hate radio station KSFO, for example, there is rarely a Hispanic voice heard, but still non-stop howling about the actions of federal agents in Little Havana.

Of the U.S. press, highest marks go Miami New Times and the Washington Post; had their stories been widely distributed, we might not be facing the creation of a new extremist myth. But it is the responsibilty of the entire media to defuse this by making known the full and accurate details of the entire story instead of seeking just emotional soundbites.

The Good Mother

Any pursuit of truth in this story begins with this seminal question: Why did Elizabet Broton Gonzalez take her child on such a potentially dangerous trip? Your response determines how you will view all developments that followed. Either his mother was courageously helping her son escape tyranny -- or she was taking completely irresponsible risks with his life.

Crucial to finding an answer is knowing more about a Cuban man named Lazaro Munero. He was Elizabet's boyfriend -- not Elian's "stepfather," as he is identified by groups that want to keep the boy in the U.S. (MSNBC also mistakenly uses this ID).

Most of the available information on Munero comes from two sources only: a feature in the April 23 issue of NY Times Sunday Magazine, and an 11,000 word report in Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party. While the Cuban newspaper might be expected to stink of bias, the Times story also is suspect; much is made of the great-uncle's resistance to Castro in the 1960s, but no mention at all is made of their more recent legal woes, as described in the section below. But about Munero, both sources agree: He was a hustler with a reputation for brawling and violence.

Nicknamed "El Loco" apparently for his volatile temper, Elizabet met him at a nightclub four months after her breakup with Elian's father. Munero was 22, six years younger than her. A high school dropout, his work history included stints as an unlicensed taxi driver, a waiter, and sometimes selling beer and pop to tourists on the beach. He had already spent over a year in prison for robbing a tourist, and maybe additional time for chopping off someone's finger. "He was tough, maybe hardheaded (and) a hustler," one of his uncles told Miami New Times. "He was troubled."

Within two months of their meeting, he was living with Elisabet and Elian. Friends and relatives were concerned; he had a child that was still an infant. The girlfriend and mother of that child later described him as a "domineering and violent" drunk to Granma -- although the NY Times says that she described him in "softer, more complex terms" than others. The Cuban paper also says that Elisabet was found with black eyes and a swollen wrist, which she supposedly blamed on a dog.

Less than a year later, Munero fled in a boat to Miami with a couple of pals. Life in the promised land wasn't so great, he found; he spent a few months working at a carwash for 5 bucks an hour. Disillusioned, he headed back to Cuba at the end of 1998 and moved back in with Elisabet -- after another short turn in jail.

While in prison, Munero supposedly changed his mind again and became determined to flee Cuba once more. Elisabet -- who was always described in terms such as "easy-going" -- agreed this time to go with him to Florida. With his father, Munero began soldering together pipes for the 16-foot boat, large enough to carry Munero's parents, his brother, Elisabet and Elian, plus seven friends of Elisabet. Munero charged at least two of them $2,000 each.

When Munero's ship was finally launched again on November 22, behind it were floating three inner tubes salvaged from Russian truck tire inner tubes. Three days later, only two of Elisabet's friends and Elian survived, thanks to luck and those floats. The boat sank around midnight of the same day of its fateful launch. Presumed dead, INS officials said that Munero would be prosecuted for human smuggling and murder if he ever turned up alive.

Not Exactly Saints

Elian had disappeared. That was all his father knew on November 22, when the boy was absent was school. By evening it was apparent that Elizabet and Munero were probably on a boat headed for Florida, and he made a collect call to uncle Lazaro in Miami.

He called the wrong uncle -- and that is why we are today discussing Elian Gonzalez as the biggest news story in five years.

There are three great-uncles in the Elian story, all brothers of Elian's paternal grandfather. All of these great-uncles live in Florida. Followers of the Elian story are forgiven if there is some confusion: "I'm still trying to figure out the family tree," great-uncle Manuel joked to a writer for the Miami New Times weekly. But each of these male elders has a distinct role in the story. For background, here's a thumbnail sketch of the Gonzalez brothers:

-Lazaro 49, given custody of Elian by INS. No steady employment for the last five years. Convicted of DUI 1991, 1997

-Delfin 62, a fisherman who sold lobster traps in Florida Keys until Elian's arrival, when he became a familar character at Lazaro's household. Convicted of DUI 1991, 1996

-Manuel mid-50s (?) occupation unknown. Lives in Pompano Beach, north of the Miami/Dade County area. No convictions, no known arrests

Others in the extended family include the Cids, two brothers and a sister that are cousins to Elian via a great-aunt. Georgina Cid Cruz was an early media spokesperson for the clan, and her twin brothers frequently came by to play with the boy or take him on outings. Both brothers have long arrest records; Luis with robbery and gun charges, and Jose with five charges including burglary, grand theft, and robbery with force.

All of this is relevant, of course, because this is the extended family that claims it offers Elian a better life than the one he would have with dad in Cuba. Should the case ever actually get to family court, Lazaro's two drunk-driving convictions would likely be points against awarding him custody. So would his habitual unemployment; until Elian arrived, he was doing freelance auto body repair at home. Hearing that Elian's guardian was out of work, a director at the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation gave him a job at his auto dealership, then immediately placed Lazaro on "indefinite leave."

As Molly Ivins noted in her April 25 column, these black marks against the Miami relatives aren't widely known, although they were documented in January by Miami New Times. Even less has been reported about great-uncle Manuel Gonzalez, however, who split with the family and came out on the side of Elian's father.

In retrospect, it was a terrible mistake for Juan Miguel to contact his uncle Lazaro instead of Manuel; perhaps he would have made a different choice if he knew that Elisabet had died at sea and the boy was already alone. Manuel was the only great-uncle that Elian knew -- he was the only Florida relative who made annual trips to Cuba to visit family members there.

As the situation grew tense in February, Elian's father asked Manuel to seek custody from the court. It was a nasty scene; after Manuel filed the papers at the federal building, he was chased down the street by protesters yelling, "Communist! Communist!" A few days later, he was hospitalized for chest pains.

On March 1, Manuel and others in the Gonzalez family testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Manuel said that he had visited Elian in Lazaro's home, and was concerned that the boy was "in shock" and not acting normally. "He doesn't know where he is. And one must act urgently and give this child the attention he needs," Manuel said. It directly contradicted Marisleysis and others who said that the boy was happy and wanted to remain with them.

For such a betrayal, Manuel was ostracized from the greater family. On his last visit to Lazaro's house, his brothers refused to speak to him. Elian would not bestow his customary kiss.

The Fisherman Who Wasn't

When federal agents begin the assault on the Gonzalez home Saturday morning, the first to react is Donato Dalrymple, sleeping next to the front door. Jumping up, he quickly grabs the boy from the lap of Lazaro Gonzales. With the startled child yelling "Que Pasa?" Dalrymple weaves through the tiny house towards the second bedroom. Close on his heels follows photographer Alan Diaz. (By some reports, a family member guides him to the room.) Dalrymple takes position with his back against the open closet. Perhaps by coincidence, he has chosen the best location for the cameraman in the small space -- the cameraman has a clear view of the doorway through which agents must come, and there is no space for the cops to maneuver between the boy and the camera lens. Before the agents enter, Dalrymple turns and says something to Diaz, as shown in a little-circulated AP photo. Considering that he was asleep just seconds before, Gonzalez family members are screaming in the other room, and INS officers are battering down the doors, Dalrymple looks surprisingly unruffled.

The rest is well known: The boy is snatched up by government agents, and newspaper editors rush to tear up the Easter Sunday front pages to make room for the famous picture. To describe the man holding Elian, the Associated Press cannot resist noting the irony: "They found him in a closet in the arms of the same fisherman who had rescued him from the sea on Thanksgiving Day -- and now had to hand him over."

But like dodgy past of Elian's Miami kin, the national press has handled Dalrymple gently. Most Americans (and at least one editorial cartoonist) would surely be surprised to learn he is not a fisherman at all; his "last known employment was cleaning apartments," according to his hometown Fort Lauderdale newspaper. On that Thanksgiving Day when he and his cousin spotted the boy adrift, they were in a little 25-foot boat enjoying the holiday. "My cousin's the one who's into fishing, not me," he later told a reporter.

Dalrymple soon ingratiated himself with the Miami relatives, and "Uncle Donato" became a fixture in the small house. "I'm here, pretty much every day," Dalrymple told the Boston Herald. "The bond Elian and I share... all I can say is that it's very special."

Special, indeed. Dalrymple has made much of a mystical connections between himself and the boy with bizarre comments such as "we gave birth to that child in the ocean." A Pentecostal evangelist and once a missionary, he told the Washington Post that Elian was his destiny: "In church a man once prophesied that I would be involved in something big, The man didn't know me, and he was weeping when he said it... What I get out of this is that God can still use me. [Elian] was in my path and I did what God wanted me to do. I saved the boy's life."

Making these remarks even more peculiar, Dalrymple has joined the faction of Miami Cubans who see the boy as a messiah -- which would put Donato first in line to claim status of apostle. "A child doesn't emerge from such a miracle without being destined for great things," he told USA TODAY. "In the end, I believe God will give Elian the grace to lift the cloak off Castro," he told the NY Daily News.

Although he's an Anglo who knows only a few words of Spanish, Dalrymple has enthusiastically embraced the Miami Cuban's political cause, and uses any opportunity to attack Fidel and Elian's father. "I'm appalled at what's going on," Donato told the Daily News in early April, "and the way Castro has been allowed to orchestrate this fiasco. I am not a father, myself, but I think all of this could have been avoided had Elian's father come here and declared his claim to his son right after we found him. If he had to get on a raft himself, he should have come. If he has to die for the love of his son . . . well, better men have died for less."

Before his April 9 meeting with Elian's father, Dalrymple made it clear that he felt the Cuban father was obligated to him: "This man owes us more than a shake of his hand... I want to pour my heart out to this man, and hopefully he will listen to what I have to say about the rescue, and about how his son has bonded with me." But typical of how the press has coddled Dalrymple, only the French wire service AFP and three newspapers used this arrogant claim from a 40 year-old man with no kids of his own.

But while print and broadcast media have portrayed Dalrymple as a credible figure in hundreds of reports, mostly ignored is his harshest critic -- the other man on the boat that Thanksgiving morning. Dalrymple's cousin Sam Ciancio.

A roofer and father of two, Ciancio told reporters shortly after the rescue that it was he who dived into the ocean to rescue the boy. In some of the first news stories, Ciancio also is quoted offering to care for the child. Before his meeting with Elian's father, Ciancio had made statements that he felt strongly that the boy should stay in the U.S. But Ciancio emerged from that meeting convinced that the child should be immediately reunited with his father. "He is a loving father," Ciancio told reporters. "Things were said yesterday about Juan Miguel owing me something. Juan Miguel owes me not one thing."

Ciancio also made it clear that day that a serious rift had formed between him and Donato. Leaving the meeting alone, he said, "Me and my cousin have different opinions. Donato Dalrymple does not speak for me." Ciancio later told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that he is convinced Dalrymple is profiting from his connections to the Gonzalez family and supporting community.

The day before the agents took Elian, Ciancio spent the evening with great-uncle Manuel Gonzalez, who sides with Elian's father. Ciancio told the Sun-Sentinel that both expected the raid to take place on Saturday, and that Juan Miguel had invited him to Washington to be part of his reunion with his son. "They (Miami relatives) put that child in the same danger his mother did when she brought him over in a raft," he told the Florida newspaper. "The bottom line is that this little boy had to be reunited with his father."

The Miracle Child

Word spread fast through the Miami Cuban community about the boy plucked from the sea, and by at least the second day, a new and important part of the myth was being repeated: That the boy was in perfect condition and a school of dolphins had protected the child from swarming sharks.

Whether dolphins really had any role in Elian's survial is impossible to prove or disprove. There is no witness other than the 5 year-old, who was immediately placed in the custody of his religious Miami relatives. It is only truthful to say that the boy spoke often of dolphins while living in his great-uncle's house; when being interviewed by ABC's Diane Sawyer, he drew a little picture of himself on the ocean with a dolphin alongside.

Dolphins indeed often follow human boats and rafts, holding a friendly niche in the history of legend. Ancient Greeks revered them, and even then they were credited for helping guide lost sailors to port. In Cuban legend there is both the notion of dolphins being guided by angels and the well-known story of Our Lady of Charity, which portrays the Virgin Mary protecting three fisherman lost at sea. Thus it's really no surprise that the Elian myth soon evolved to portray him both seeing angels hovering overhead as well as being surrounded by dolphins. Dalrymple is again at the center of this part of the story, telling the L.A. Times that Elian remembers "when an angel appeared to him at nighttime."

Angels aside, there are serious questions whether the memory of dolphins was suggested by Dalrymple and the Miami Cubans. Making claim for his special connection to Elian, Dalrymple also told the Times that the boy called him, "the man that pulled me out of the water when there were a lot of dolphins around me." But that doesn't mesh with another statement -- that no dolphins were in the area when he and his cousin found the boy, just what Dalrymple termed "dolphin-fish." Elian's 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis also made one of her first press statements to the Ft. Lauderdale paper the day after his rescue by telling a reporter "He says he doesn't remember anything." The entire dolphin story might be a false memory borrowed from the Elian-myth.

The other part of the survival myth is that he emerged from two days at sea unharmed. In a typical statement, Marisleysis told the London Times, "People need to believe in miracles. This kid was in the middle of the ocean, his feet hanging over an inner tube and he had no fish bites, no scratches, nothing. How can that be? The other two survivors had blisters, holes in their legs and were sunburnt. Elian had nothing. It was like God sent the fishermen to get him."

Again, the myth doesn't fit the facts. The boy did show signs of exposure; all three survivors were treated at local hospitals for dehydration and minor cuts. All were listed as in good condition.

It is likely, however, that the child actually was in better condition than the two adults. His mother had wrapped him in her coat before lashing him to the Russian truck tire inner tube and giving him a bottle of water. Not only did he have protection from the sun because of the coat, he might not have had any part of his body in the ocean at all, depending on the size of the rubber tube.

While it's still wonderous that the boy survived, the image of him bundled in a coat and tied down is not the romantic picture painted by artists who portray him surrounded by happy dolphins and reaching for the embrace of angels. Nor do they add the gruesome element to the portrait: the corpse of 60 year-old Merida Loreto Barrios, which bobbed in the water next to Elian's inner tube, tangled in rope. A later autopsy found her cause of death was "drowning and compression of the neck by rope," apparently from a botched effort to likewise tie herself to the inner tube. Not for Merida Loreto the protectorship of the Blessed Virgin.

True Believers

"I myself truly believe God saved Elian," Miami Mayor Joe Carollo told the Washington Times. "If some don't see the miracle, I am sorry for them." It was a politician's well-crafted remark designed not to offend. Certainly both sides would agree that it was miraculous that the boy survived the hazards of being afloat two days upon the open ocean. But the word miracle is coded here to appeal to the sizeable population of Miami Cubans who believe that Elian Gonzalez is literally their messiah. One believer told the Washington Post, "if he stays in the United States, Elian will rise to defeat the Castro regime and bring salvation to Cuba."

Until Thanksgiving, the 800,000 Cubans in the larger Miami area only agreed that Castro should be deposed -- somehow. But once Elian was found, the child became the obsession of the community, both a symbol of the Cuban diaspora and a potent icon in its own right.

Almost immediately, Elian became El Nino Milagro -- the Miracle Child. Within two days of his rescue, the dolphins story was being spread on Miami talk radio; soon clergy and the pious were seeking to place religious meaning on the Elian story.

Rev. Jose Luis Menendez, pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church, is only one of several mainstream religious figures who have compared Elian's saga to the story of Jesus in the New Testament. "Herod -- Castro -- is waiting in Cuba," Menendez told the Washington Post. "Pontius Pilate is washing his hands in Washington, and that is President Clinton. And the suffering of this child is the suffering of the Cuban people."

Others highlight parallels to the story of Moses, noting that the Old Testament figure was also set adrift by his mother. "The daughter of the pharaoh took in Moses and this changed the history of the Hebrews," wrote newspaper columnist Jose Marmol. "Moses lived to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land of Israel, an exodus that lasted 40 years -- about the same as our exile from Cuba."

But whether the kid most takes after Jesus or Moses is a non-issue; these are just different flavors of sermons. Far more important is the heartfelt reaction from the community. Put another way, it was not notable last month when Miami's auxiliary Roman Catholic bishop conducted an outdoor mass and proselytized about the Castro-Herod metaphor; what was important about that event was that thousands joined the ceremony, their bodies forming a massive human cross in a Little Havana street intersection.

For anyone so inclined, a religious fevor took hold. Rumors that an image of the Virgin Mary appeared in a bank window soon drew believers to create a shrine of candles and pictures -- and the bank to hire a security guard to protect the image from attempts to clean it off. The same day that Little Havana was abuzz over the bank apparition, members of the Gonzalez family believed that the Virgin also appeared on the mirror in the bedroom Elian shared with Marisleysis. Across the street, a poster portrayed Elian cradling the baby Jesus with the caption, "Elian Knows Christ -- Others Do Not." And perhaps the best example of the mondo weirdness surrounding the story, one reporter noted a man reciting the rosary through a megaphone outside the Gonzalez home -- at midnight.

Running parallel to this madness, another cult was developing: Hatred against the Justice Department for insisting that the boy's father should have custody. According to reports in the Flordia press, Miami AM talk radio programs have aired a steady stream of invective against both President Clinton and Attorney General Reno for months, cumulating in a pair of alleged death threats in early April.

And spotted among those standing guard outside the Gonzalez house were members of Alpha 66, an anti-Castro terrorist group skilled in handling automatic weapons and explosives. The group, founded by Bay of Pigs veterans, believes that guerilla war is the only way to rid Cuba of Fidel, and Reno's justice department has prosecuted members several times for gun-running. Another member was convicted in 1996 for selling a pipe bomb to an undercover FBI agent.

While it's unlikely that the feds were worried about members of Alpha 66 chucking bombs in Little Havana or having a showdown with INS agents, it is almost certain that the terrorists were conducting a different type of operation: Recruiting. According to a 1998 Miami New Times profile, the group seeks out youths for their cause, holding weekly training exercises at their secluded camp.

There is no doubt that Alpha 66 and other anti-Castro groups will exploit the Elian myth to the fullest. It also seems likely that anti-American groups will use the story -- particularly the photo of the seizure -- to stir rage. Much like the time after Waco in 1993, a fuse has been lit beneath extremists; all that remains is to hope that we can avoid the inevitable explosion.

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