4/21/00 - By J. Michael Waller. Insight Magazine, April 23, 2000
As the Justice Department crafted plans to remove Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez from his great-uncle's house by force, the State Department plotted to protect Cuban diplomats who assaulted pro-Elian demonstrators.
As with the Arianne Horta story (see "The Arianne Horta Story," May 8 ) the national press in both Cuba and America seem oblivious to what's going on other than snapping pictures of the 6-year-old boy playing in his great uncle's front yard.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the big media virtually have ignored an out-of-control melee on April 14 in which Cuban diplomats attacked and beat a small group of demonstrators supporting the Gonzalez boy.
The Washington Post, among others, reported superficial details of the amazing brawl that broke out but, oddly, failed to report the full story let alone what happened and in context. And it's an amazing story.
Insight has learned, based on confidential Secret Service and Metropolitan Police reports obtained by the magazine, that an officer on the scene described the unprovoked Cuban attack as "hand-to-hand combat" against women and men, alike.
Moreover, statements made by U.S. government spokesmen who routinely speak of the rule of law and lambaste the "adopted" family of Elian Gonzalez have tried to gloss what only can be described as a diplomatic cover-up.
Here are the ugly facts as recorded by the police and, Insight has learned, captured on secret videotapes by federal agents stationed at the scene.
Small groups of nonviolent protesters had gathered in front of the Cuban mission on April 14. Then, toward early evening, a band of Cuban diplomats, alleged to have been drinking, charged across the 16th Street corridor separating the Cuban Interests Section and the demonstrators to engage in "hand-to-hand"
combat with anti-Castro protesters.
Screaming obscenities and yelling threats, the gang of approximately 10 diplomats, who had taken off their coats, ties and jewelry began attacking indiscriminately with fists and sticks, injuring even a Secret Service officer.
"During the course of the demonstration, in which American and Cuban flags as well as signs and placards were displayed, a group of approximately 10 people came out of the embassy and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the group of 20 demonstrators," wrote Uniformed Secret Service
Officer Matthew D. Schaeffer, who witnessed the incident from his cruiser.
Another officer, Kenneth E. Buczkowski, radioed for backup. After reinforcements arrived, law-enforcement units separated the two groups but made no attempt at arrests. Diplomatic immunity prevailed, apparently.
The Washington Post reported that the Cuban officials attacked in response to provocations by demonstrators and to alleged harassment of a female colleague.
But the police reports had anyone bothered to secure them showed an entirely different story. In fact, the incident referred to in the Post occurred several hours before the melee and injuries inflicted by the Cuban diplomats. And the incident referred to by the Post and other news
outlets involved only a single demonstrator, who had made lewd hand gestures at a Cuban official's chauffeur.
According to a copy of that incident report filed by a Secret Service officer, the individual was seen immediately to "depart the area" after being observed "spitting in the direction of a second Cuban staff member as she was crossing 16th Street."
Much, much later, however, is when, as characterized by police and witnesses interviewed, Cuban diplomats launched what appeared to be a premeditated and organized assault. Before leaving the mission, the Cuban officials removed their coats, jewelry and rings.
An eyewitness told police that two groups of Cuban officials gathered at the gate of the compound, based in the Swiss Embassy at 2630 16th Street NW, waited until the gate opened, and commenced the assault.
"They immediately attacked us with fists and sticks," Victor Andres Triay, a professor at Middlesex Community College in Connecticut, told police. "The men came out deliberately to beat us."
Two other demonstrators said they saw a Cuban official videotaping the attack with a camcorder.
Sources tell Insight that the Cuban officials had been drinking before the assault. Officer Schaeffer wrote: "Ten 'unidentified' Cuban employees of the mission came out and began to assault the demonstrators on the front sidewalk. Units responded to separate the two groups and the Cuban
employees were 'forced' back into their mission.
"Eleven of the demonstrators filed complaints for simple assault. The Cuban First Secretary [Felix Wilson Hernandez] was interviewed and refused to provide a list of names of possible suspects."
Federal law-enforcement sources tell Insight that the United States knows the identities of each of the Cuban assailants because of close, 24-hour surveillance of the facility, and that the incident should result in the expulsion of the officials from the United States.
"We thought they were going to talk to us," said Maria Mercedes Alonso. "No, they came out swinging fists hit a woman first [and] proceeded to throw punches, beat our backs with flag rods."
"They tackled some of the women in the group and dragged them out into the street," said Mauricio Claver Carone, a student. "The two officers on site were not enough to control the situation, so they kept brutally attacking us despite the officers' fruitless efforts to end the
Estrella Noda, an employee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told police, "Two men from the group charged directly at me, picked me up after tackling me and punched me on my head, arms and back and left me laying in the street."
Eyewitness Jose Truman Acurna, who lives near the Cuban facility, told police that the Cuban officials "started hitting everyone women, too. I saw them pick up the woman there [Noda] and throw her to the pavement."
Several of the attacked victims, including Alonso and Noda, filed assault complaints. Jorge Benitez, a Virginia student, wrote in a complaint to the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department that the Cuban officials "stormed down the driveway of the Cuban Interests Section. They
shouted obscenities in Spanish, and they rolled up their sleeves. They yelled to us that 'prepare to be punished' and 'now you will get what you deserve' in Spanish."
Benitez's wife Bridgida, an attorney with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, says in an assault report: "The men physically attacked all the members of the protest, including women. One man pushed me into the street.... I was hit at least twice by two different men. I can identify them."
Ironically, Bridgida Benitez works for the very law firm that recently defended a Cuban intelligence officer named Jose Imperatori, whom the United States expelled earlier this year for running an alleged spy within the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami.
Spokesmen from the White House and the State Department have said they have filed "strong" protests with the Cuban Interests Section as well as in a cable to Fidel Castro. But they also have downplayed the incident as not being serious or involving any large group of people.
Descriptions are similar to what newspapers have reported that it was only one or two people involved in a skirmish.
As with the Arianne Horta story, the only woman to survive the treacherous journey with Elian Gonzales, her struggle to get her 6-year-old daughter out of Cuba has been ignored. Yet the press and the officials in Cuba and the United States continue to stress the rule of law.
Attorney General Janet Reno and INS officials have insisted on upholding the parental rights of Juan Miguel Gonzalez and to devise a "rescue" plan to free Elian. But as Mrs. Horta has learned, the victims of the vicious assault by the Cuban diplomats on April 14 should expect little