Elian saga awakens activists to the cause
By Frances Robles. email@example.com. Published Monday, May 22, 2000, in the Miami Herald
WASHINGTON -- Cristina Portuondo grew up like a lot of Southern girls: bluejeans, cowboy boots, rock music.
She joined a sorority and attended horse races in pretty dresses and lovely hats. Life was what it was supposed to be in Wise, Va., a town of 7,000 people seven hours from Washington, D.C.
So what's this Southern belle doing outside the home of Cuba's top diplomat? Why is she coming up with catchy slogans and P.R. campaigns to ``free Cuba?'' How come she spent Easter weekend protesting outside the Department of Justice and Andrews Air Force Base?
``Yes, I was always Cuban, and I felt my parents' passion, but I was American. I even had a Southern accent for a while,'' said Portuondo, 29, whose ears have tuned out her soft Southern twang. ``Then this thing broke.''
This thing was the dramatic story of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old whose tale of life and death at sea has captured not only Portuondo's heart, but her soul, too -- her Cuban soul.
Because of this little boy she never met, a boy she'll probably never meet, Cuba's human rights record suddenly matters to her. The trade embargo is something Portuondo researches, and the plight of 11 million Cubans is the topic of weekly meetings she attends.
``Here I am, the Cuban from Virginia and I'm one of the main ones that's been organizing,'' said Portuondo, who writes computer manuals for a living. ``I've declared myself.''
Portuondo is one of a growing group of young Cuban-American professionals and graduate students in Washington, D.C., who have suddenly gotten in touch with their hyphenated identities. Elian's cause has awakened them to the causes their exile parents always grumbled about. The desire to force
the Immigration and Naturalization Service to grant Elian a political asylum hearing has inspired and motivated them to be the next generation of Cuban-American leaders.
``The Cuba issue has always been in me, but it's never come out the way it has now,'' said Mercedes Viana, 29, who began organizing prayer vigils with Portuondo when Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, arrived in Washington six weeks ago.
``The human rights abuses -- I heard it all my life, but it didn't register,'' said Viana, a daughter of a former Cuban political prisoner who now lobbies Congress on behalf of Florida International University. ``This child comes here, and it all opens up.''
Viana, who graduated from Miami-Dade's St. Brendan High before attending FIU, said the evolution has been similar for all the young Cuban Americans coming together here, whether they learned how to dance to Latin music in college, grammar school, or not at all.
Those who who grew up outside Miami said they felt forced to take action by what they perceived as a negative media blitz. Those from Miami moved out of state to discover that, in fact, not everyone drinks café cubano, speaks Spanish and has deep bitterness toward Fidel Castro.
``When you grow up in Miami, everyone can relate,'' Viana said. ``You come here and meet people who don't understand the issues. It's like, `Wait a second. I have a story to tell.' Why would I go to a protest in Miami if I'm one of thousands and thousands?''
Instead, they go in D.C., where sometimes they are one of six or seven.
``In Miami, who are we talking to?'' Viana said. ``We're going to mobilize and organize. Washington is a great place to start.''
The shift in the minds of the young people has not gone unnoticed, even in Miami, where the activists' torch is still firmly in the hands of the old school.
``You're starting to see the younger people in the streets. It's something that has really touched the older generation,'' said Ramon Saul Sanchez, 46, whose Democracia Movement made him a major player in the exile scene. ``Everybody is talking about it. The phrase you hear most is, `I was not
involved, but now I'm committed.' ''
Sanchez said he recently attended a Cuban issues conference in Houston, where the number of young faces in the audience was startling.
``You see a new generation more interested in issues of Cuba than ever before,'' Sanchez said. ``Elian has galvanized a feeling there was in the people, of identity and the need to embrace their roots and understand the plight of their parents. What Elian has done for them is give their identity
Jose Cardenas, director of the Cuban American National Foundation's Washington office, said the group here will be particularly capable. They speak Spanish well, and English perfectly. They know all about Cuba and come armed with graduate degrees from some of the nation's most prestigious
``It brings a tremendously valuable contribution to the issue of Cuba, because they are Cuban by heritage, raised in the U.S., and are more attuned to the Anglo-Saxon sensibilities of the broader American public,'' Cardenas said. ``They make an effective voice.''
Cuban diplomats have a different view of D.C.'s new breed of activists. Envoys attached to the Cuban Interests Section here accused the group of harassing Juan Miguel Gonzalez by heckling him and spitting at him. They were the ones shouting things such as, ``Defect!'' when he arrived last month
at the Dulles International Airport.
They are the ones who took a boat ride to the Wye Plantation on Mother's Day to release ``Free Elian'' balloons. Juan Miguel has clearly noticed them: Last month, he gave them the finger. The group denies spitting, cursing or insulting -- the ugly actions diplomats say caused a fracas outside
their mission during a small rally one Friday night.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, 24, was proudly present for all that.
``We're everywhere,'' said Claver-Carone, an activist since his teens. ``We just pick up and go.
``Elian has woken up their consciousness, created an emotional attachment to their families in a way that hadn't been there before,'' he said of those who recently joined the cause. ``They didn't know how to be active. The Elian thing not only taught them, but inspired them. Now I hear them
saying, `What are we doing for the Cuban cause beyond Elian?' That's good to hear.''
Portuondo says she's given up on vigils and poorly attended protests. Now she and her friends are coming with a plan to make Cuba's human rights records a hot topic. ``Fidel Castro can be sure of this: Our parents' generation has now passed the torch to us,'' Portuondo said. ``He better realize
it's not over.''
Boy's images find a place in Cuban history exhibit
By Ana Acle. firstname.lastname@example.org. Published Monday, May 22, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Cuba Nostalgia, a three-day annual event that ended Sunday, usually evokes bittersweet memories for many Cuban Americans.
But this year, glimpses of Elian Gonzalez among old photographs, maps and postcards of Cuba linked the past with the present -- demonstrating that the tragic story of the shipwrecked boy has taken its place in exile history.
A month ago today federal agents seized Elian in an armed raid of his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez's home in Little Havana.
``We shouldn't forget,'' said Armando Fumero of Kendall, who wore on his shirt an Elian badge distributed for free to the crowd. The badge shows a picture of Elian and a Cuban flag.
The event's co-organizer, Leslie Pantin, estimated the weekend crowd at 30,000 -- up from last year's 25,000.
``This year, there were many non-Cuban friends who said they wanted to learn about Cuban heritage,'' Pantin said.
Like last year, few white non-Hispanics or African Americans attended the event. The crowd was predominantly Cuban.
Sightings of Elian memorabilia stopped many in their tracks. Pictures of Gonzalez's home hung next to 1950s black-and-white photographs of the Capitol in Havana.
Posters of the boy were given away with the purchase of Marisela Verena's Libre (Cancion para Elian) ($10). Proceeds of the sale of Free (Song for Elian) went to Facts About Cuban Exiles, an organization that promotes a positive image of Cuban Americans.
Alexis Blanco's oil painting Dios los Cria (a phrase akin to ``Birds of a Feather'') drew big crowds.
Blanco's work, priced at $10,000, depicts 21 people involved in the Elian controversy hanging on a clothesline -- most of their legs either tied or converted to a snake's rattle.
The portraits included Attorney General Janet Reno, President Clinton, Gregory Craig, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, Elian's grandmothers and Fidel Castro -- who controls a rope that leads to Reno, Madeleine Albright and Doris Meissner. Craig is a lawyer representing Elian's father, Campbell
helped bring Elian's father here, Albright is the secretary of state and Meissner the immigrationcommissioner.
``For me, this was like an exorcism,'' Blanco said. ``After I painted them, I got them out of my system.''
Although many other items at the event did not portray Elian, the memory of the raid and the continuing mystery of the boy's ultimate fate remained in the minds of many participants.
Aimee Gramatikos, a vendor with Old Cuba Art, memorabilia created from her late father's stamp collection, said it was important to keep pictures that evoke memories.
Gramatikos had forgotten the memory of her mother and father arrested in Cuba as political prisoners when she was 9 and her sister 2. A neighbor cared for them until the parents were released.
``All that was brought back when I saw the raid with Elian,'' Gramatikos said. ``I hadn't thought about that emotion in over 30 years.''
GOP divided on easing sanctions
By Ana Radelat. Special to The Herald. Published Monday, May 22, 2000, in the Miami Herald
WASHINGTON -- A childhood brush with Fidel Castro's government helped shape House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's hard-line attitude toward Havana and fueled his fight against congressional attempts to relax economic sanctions against the island country.
DeLay was a leader in the failed effort to pass a bill that would give Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez U.S. citizenship, and he has been a major critic of the Justice Department raid that reunited the boy with his father last month.
More recently, taking time out from his efforts to win support for permanent normal trade relations with China, DeLay has tried to stop another trade-related campaign, this one aimed at removing restrictions on the sale of food and medicine to Cuba.
``I don't support the Cuba trade language because you're not dealing with the Cuban people, you're dealing with [Fidel] Castro,'' DeLay told reporters last week.
But DeLay is having trouble rallying GOP troops to his cause, in good part because many farm state Republicans are eager to find new markets for their farmers.
Last Wednesday, DeLay summoned all House Republican members to a meeting to insist that all ``divisive'' amendments be stripped from appropriation bills. A main source of DeLay's displeasure was a provision in the House farm bill that would allow agricultural and medical sales, on a case-by-case
basis, to Cuba and other nations under U.S. trade restrictions.
Delay helped block similar legislation in the House last year.
DELAY LOSES VOTE
The House GOP members approved a resolution agreeing with DeLay, but made it nonbinding. Less than a week earlier, DeLay lost, on a 35-24 vote, an attempt in the House Appropriations Committee to strip the anti-sanctions language from the farm bill. Fifteen Republicans abandoned him in that
DeLay has a personal reason to fight against any opening toward Cuba. He told a tale of a frightening childhood experience in Cuba to an interviewer on NBC's Meet the Press and to farm lobbyists and others who have pleaded with him -- unsuccessfully -- to change his mind on sanctions.
Born in Laredo, Texas, 53 years ago, DeLay spent most of his childhood in Venezuela, where his father drilled oil wells. On a trip home from Venezuela, the airplane carrying a 12-year-old DeLay, his mother and his siblings touched down in Havana for a refueling stop during Castro's early days in
ORDEAL IN CUBA
``They took my mother, my sister, my brother and myself out of the plane, marched us down the tarmac between the stinking soldiers with big guns and German shepherds, put us into a room for over three hours,'' DeLay told Tim Russert of Meet the Press last month. ``We had no idea what was
happening to us. . . . I'll never forget it.''
Debate on the House farm spending bill was initially scheduled for last Friday but was postponed to give DeLay and other Republican House leaders time to try to work out a compromise with Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., the main sponsor of the anti-sanctions legislation.
Speaking about Nethercutt's legislation, John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, said the House leadership doesn't want new provisions in bills ``that would either split the [Republican] caucus or provoke a presidential veto.''
Besides opening the door to agricultural sales to Cuba, Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, Nethercutt's amendment, and a Senate provision sponsored by Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., would strip the president of authority to include bans on the sale of food and medicine in future sanctions packages,
a restriction the White House opposes.
NO VETO THREAT
The Clinton administration, however, has not threatened so far to veto the farm bill if it included the anti-sanctions language. While Feehery says the fractious House Republicans are ``trying to work things out'' over the anti-sanctions initiative, there is pressure to bring the farm bill to
the floor for a vote this week.
To end the impasse, an aide to Nethercutt said the GOP leaders have proposed several compromises, including allowing the Washington Republican to present his anti-sanctions initiative as a separate bill on the House floor or attach it to another bill.
Nethercutt is considering his options, but his aide vowed that ``we're not going to let the issue go away.''
Support for the anti-sanctions legislation is stronger in the Senate, especially after Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. -- a longtime supporter of the embargo on Cuba -- allowed the legislation to move forward in exchange for certain restrictions, including a ban on government loans and grants in
agricultural sales to Cuba and other nations on the State Department's terrorist list.
CANF adds to its leadership ranks
Director part of group's campaign to push Cuban-American perspective
By Elaine De Valle . email@example.com. From Elian's Saga. Published Sunday, May 21, 2000, in the Miami Herald
The Cuban American National Foundation has fresh blood in its leadership today: Its new executive director is Joe Garcia, who, as chairman of the state's Public Service Commission the last 18 months, was the highest-ranking Cuban American in Florida government.
After he wraps up his work at the PSC on Friday, Garcia will take over the day-to-day operations from Jose ''Pepe'' Hernandez, who will continue as president.
The addition is part of a new campaign at the CANF which, in the wake of the Elian Gonzalez saga, wants to more aggressively present the Cuban-American perspective, said CANF Chairman Jorge Mas Santos.
''These past few months have revealed the need for us to elevate our voice, get involved, stay active, and continue to expose the reality of Fidel Castro,'' said Mas, who plans on announcing more additions soon, particularly to increase the organization's presence in Washington.
''This is part of a growing offensive.''
He said Garcia is ''extremely qualified'' for the daily tasks and was the perfect man to rejuvenate efforts at the local, national and international levels.
''We need to utilize his energy to be effective in getting our message out,'' Mas said.
Garcia, the first Hispanic chairman in the PSC's 114-year history, leaves behind a $120,000 job regulating a $17 billion industry, working with more than 400 people to set public policy for all the electrical, gas, telephone and water services in the state, and, possibly, a promising political
But for the 35-year-old Miami Beach resident -- the youngest executive director of the CANF and the first who was born in exile -- it is a natural move, a homecoming of sorts.
Garcia worked at the foundation right out of college in the late '80s and eventually ran its Cuban Exodus Relief Fund, a multimillion-dollar refugee relocation program that brought more than 10,000 Cubans to Miami from all over the world and ended six years ago.
''I was able to travel to 23 different countries in bringing the Cuban diaspora to what is our temporary home,'' Garcia said Saturday. ''We were reuniting families and I'll tell you what -- it was the greatest job I ever had.
''I made many good friendships. It is rare the day I go out into this community that I don't find someone who tells me 'You brought me from Peru,' or 'You brought me from Panama or Russia,' or 'You saved my child.' ''
Coming back in the midst of the Elian issue is perfect timing, he added.
''You see a hole and you want to make sure you can fill it. You see a need and you want to be there,'' Garcia said.
''I see this as a pivotal moment in our community. The Elian situation put a lot of perspective on things for a lot of us. It was archetypal in nature. It was something we all understood.
''It's rare to have a teenager who has never been to Cuba, never even heard the Cuban national anthem, identify with someone in her 80s who lived that experience.''
And part of his new job will be to capitalize on that ''renewed vigor,'' he said.
''I'm clearly going to try to reach out to an overwhelming majority of Cubans who are not involved. Some of them didn't know they were Cuban Americans until last month. I hope that in the days and weeks to come, we can tap into some of that almost evangelistic fervor that has grown out there
among young Cubans.
''In the fight for liberty, it's never too late.''
Garcia also wants to break bread with the larger South Florida community that hasn't sympathized with the Cuban majority on the Elian stand and the greater issue of Cuba.
''I was born here. I'm as American as George Washington. And I feel as proud of being an American as George Washington,'' he said. ''That, of course, does not discount that I would like to see Cuba free. And I think most Americans of good conscience would like to see the same future for Cuba
that we do.
''I hope to be able to extend some bridges to those in the community who don't understand what it is that occurred within the last few weeks. I expect to stand strongly behind the concept that hoping for a free and democratic Cuba is never negative, is always positive,'' said Garcia, who was
shocked by recent anti-Cuban slurs.
''Part of the problem here is that the experience is so simple to most Cuban Americans that that's what made it so difficult to explain.
''Part of the task is to make sure that we don't oversimplify the events of the last few weeks and at the same time take from it the hard lessons that have to be learned about our experience in this country, our role, and the necessity to get the message out properly and effectively so you don't
end up on the wrong side of an opinion poll because you were trying to do the right thing.''
Hernandez, the president, said that is exactly what the foundation wants from Garcia.
''He brings something very difficult to find these days: a young man who knows his roots and also the American culture and who represents a bridge between the older exile and the younger generation of Cuban Americans.''
Though the foundation has failed to sway the federal government on Elian, Garcia still believes it is the most powerful Cuban exile group in the world.
''If you look at the last 19 years since it was founded, there is not an event in the Cuban community where the foundation has not played a pivotal role in trying to make sure the Cuban community had the voice. And the role continues to be that way.
''I hope to make it even more effective,'' he said.
Coast Guard: Rescue policy hasn't changed
Comparing rafter cases misleading, officials say
By Elaine De Valle. firstname.lastname@example.org. From Elian's Saga. Published Sunday, May 21, 2000, in the Miami Herald
It was the same Coast Guard vessel with most of the same crew, but the fate of 14 Cuban rafters caught off shore about seven miles off Miami earlier this month was significantly different from that of another group found in February.
The 12 men and two women found May 5 were all immediately brought to shore for emergency medical treatment and released from hospitals within hours. Most were reunited with their families the next day.
Three months earlier, four survivors of a group of six were kept for hours on board the same cutter, the Matagorda, then stayed at South Shore Hospital for three days.
One of them left in a casket.
Some in the Cuban-American community believe the Coast Guard has changed the way it handles severely dehydrated rafters because of criticism after the earlier incident. But the Coast Guard says the two cases just illustrate how different circumstances lead to different outcomes.
In the February incident, Ernesto Molina Ramos was the first to be ''med-evaced'' more than four hours after the Coast Guard reached the group. An emergency medical technician on board the Matagorda couldn't even get an IV into him. But before making the decision, he had to consult with a flight
surgeon who then gave the OK to bring Molina ashore.
After Molina died at the hospital, the Coast Guard was criticized by family members and the Cuban community for having taken so long. Critics believe he had a better chance of living had he been transported sooner.
Molina's official cause of death was listed as ''complications of environmental exposure'' by the medical examiner. His lower legs and buttocks had skin ulcers, he had blisters on his feet and severe green discoloration on his calves.
''The time they lost in that case was the cause of the death of that human being,'' said Ninoska Perez-Castellon, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation.
She and others say the dual responsibilities of saving lives and repatriating Cuban migrants caught at sea often clash. But Coast Guard Petty Officer Gibran Soto said there is no conflict of interest.
''Our No. 1 mission is still to rescue lives at sea. We also have to enforce U.S. laws, but these people needed medical attention immediately, so that outweighed the law enforcement part of interdicting refugees at sea,'' he said about the May incident.
The agency handled that one differently -- bringing the rafters to shore and sending the first eight who were worse off to area hospitals in little more than an hour after reaching them at sea.
''If they had left us a few hours more, at least one of us would be dead for sure,'' said Jose Antonio Zamora Diaz, 39, one of the 14 from the May 5 rescue. He now lives in Hialeah with his mother and has recovered from all but one saltwater wound on his hand.
''We were on our last breaths. We couldn't hang on anymore. I don't know how many, but some of us would have died if they had waited even an hour or two.''
The different treatment has been seen by some Cuban exiles as a change in the Coast Guard's policy. One exile leader, Brothers to the Rescue founder Jose Basulto, said he was relieved by what he perceived as a change of heart.
''I'm very glad that the seriousness of the situation and the health the refugees find themselves in have become the first priority over whether or not they are sent back to Cuba,'' Basulto said.
But Coast Guard Petty Officer Silvia Olvera said there is no official change in procedure at the agency's Miami Beach station, which handled both rescue calls. Instead, she cited stark differences between the two situations that warranted the disparate handling.
''These people needed immediate medical attention,'' Olvera said of the new group. ''Eight of the 12 were unconscious when we arrived.''
Although two of the six in the first group were already dead when found, the other four, she said, were conscious and alert, and crew members initially believed they could be treated on board the cutter.
There were other factors, too, Olvera said:
The weather was a ''big factor'' during the first rescue. Rougher seas made it more difficult to get to the rafters.
The first group was in a makeshift raft, while the second group came in a small boat constructed of aluminum. ''The cutter was not able to pull directly up to the raft,'' Olvera said. The Coast Guard had to dispatch a smaller boat.
The May group was closer to the shore and therefore could be brought in faster than the group in February.
''The Coast Guard was criticized so much for the time frame [in February's rescue]. It's not that we're trying to avoid that,'' Olvera said. ''It's just that the EMT on the cutter said they were going to need to be med-evaced now, not later.''
The survivors from the first group and the latest refugees do have something in common, however. While they would have been sent back to Cuba if they hadn't been found near death, now they get to stay in the United States.
Because they were brought ashore for medical treatment, according to the Cuba-U.S. immigration accord of 1995 -- often called the ''wet foot/dry foot'' policy -- they get to stay.
''When they're what we call 'med-evaced,' or transported to a local area hospital, that would be the same thing as if they had reached shore, thereby making them eligible to apply for residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act,'' Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman Maria Elena
She also said the agency does not keep statistics on how many Cubans enter the United States this way.
But a search of past Herald stories turned up several instances when medical needs have allowed Cubans to stay. Among them:
One man was taken to Aventura Hospital after he complained of chest pains when the Coast Guard intercepted five Cubans on a rubber and wood raft about four miles east of Miami Beach on April 1. The others were placed on board a Coast Guard cutter.
A woman whose 18-foot boat with seven others aboard was intercepted was taken to a hospital after going into labor July 17, 1999, about eight miles south of Islamorada. A mother and her 3-month-old infant having an asthma attack were also flown to a hospital.
Two women in a group of six caught 28 miles south of Alligator Reef on July 15 were brought to a hospital. Their husbands were later brought ashore for ''humanitarian reasons.''
A 60-year-old woman suffering from dehydration was airlifted to Mariners Hospital in Tavarnier Key after her boat, with four other Cubans on board, was intercepted July 9 off Islamorada.
A group of 11 Cubans, including two young children and a pregnant woman, made it within sight of Key West on July 3, and when authorities approached, some jumped into the water.
All were eventually picked up by the Coast Guard. The pregnant woman and her husband were later brought to shore for medical attention. The rest remained aboard.
Another group of 17 was picked up by the Coast Guard on June 24 in a suspected smuggling trip about 20 miles south of Big Pine Key. One woman was taken to a Keys hospital after she said she had severe abdominal pains.
Another woman was brought to a hospital after she went into labor shortly after the 24-foot boat she was on with 22 other would-be refugees was intercepted at sea in January 1999. Some of her family members were also allowed to come to shore.
In all of the cases, those not brought to shore were interviewed by an INS official on board a Coast Guard vessel and sent back to Cuba if not found to have credible political asylum claims.
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald