Miami Cubans protest, pray to keep Elian in community

Boy's great-uncle meets mental health experts, U.S. government officials

April 11, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIAMI -- The streets of Little Havana filled once again last night with thousands of protesters who gathered with perhaps the only thing they have left to prevent federal authorities from removing Elian Gonzalez from their community -- a prayer.

The prayer vigil, in which a flag- and placard-waving crowd took over several blocks of a street near the home where the 6-year-old boy has lived during the four months since he was rescued from a boat capsizing that killed his mother and 10 other Cuban escapees, came after a day of delayed, and then hurried, talks between his Great-Uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, INS officials and government-appointed mental health workers.

The scheduled topic of the talks was how Elian will be transferred from his great-uncle to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who arrived from Cuba on Thursday and is temporarily living in the Bethesda home of a Cuban diplomat.

Federal authorities are expected to send a letter to Lazaro Gonzalez outlining how the transfer will take place.

But in a last-ditch effort, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who previously had defiantly announced that local police would not assist any federal agents who might try to retrieve Elian from his great-uncle's house, are scheduled to meet Attorney General Janet Reno in Washington today to appeal for a 30-day delay in the boy's transfer.

Reno has made clear that she believes Elian should be reunited with his father soon, possibly this week.

Lazaro Gonzalez also made one more attempt to delay the boy's removal from his home.

His attorneys filed legal arguments in the 11th District Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which is hearing Gonzalez' appeal of a federal court ruling that upheld the government's authority to send Elian back to Cuba.

Attorneys also planned to ask the Miami-Dade family court to hold a hearing on Juan Miguel Gonzalez' fitness as a father.

Neither the Miami relatives nor federal authorities revealed much about yesterday's talk between Lazaro Gonzalez and the government mental health workers. The talks, scheduled to take place at Jackson Medical Center early in the afternoon, were delayed for a couple of hours because Gonzalez arrived late.

Gonzalez then requested that the meeting be held at Mercy Medical Center, where his daughter, Marisleysis, has been since Saturday.

Marisleysis Gonzalez was admitted for what has been variously described as exhaustion, stress and depression. INS officials and mental health workers agreed to go to Mercy, even though the talks ultimately did not include the woman who has been called Elian's surrogate mother.

Family attorney Manny Diaz described the talks as a quick exchange of ideas, resulting in no specific conclusion.

The family spokesman, Armando Gutierrez, would not comment on the talks, which were expected to take several hours and instead were concluded in just one.

"We're waiting for a miracle," he said.

The crowd that gathered for the prayer vigil last night was similiarly inclined toward the lofty rather than the legal.

Even as federal authorities seemed to be following a quickened pace of resolving the long-running drama by returning the boy to his father this week, several vigil participants expressed optimism that Elian would remain in the United States.

As mounted police kept guard to prevent the crowd from spilling out onto a major thoroughfare, the protesters waved signs calling for "justicia para Elian," and displaying effigies of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

As a brisk wind whipped their Cuban and U.S. flags, they chanted and kept their spirits up.

"I have faith everything is going to be fine. He has come a long way. If a miracle brought him here, a miracle is going to keep him here," said Mayra Fonticoba, 52, who joined a mostly festive group that congregated on Northwest 22nd Avenue in Little Havana to pray, listen to speakers and share thimble-sized plastic cups of Cuban coffee.

Even Reno, often depicted as the devil on posters here for her efforts to sent Elian back to Cuba, is not a lost cause, said Fonticoba, who manages a doctor's office here.

"She can change her mind. They always do. First the nun changed her mind," Fonticoba said, referring to Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, who initially was neutral but then, after meeting Elian's grandmothers, came out in favor of his remaining here. "So why not Reno?"

Cuban-Americans are used to seemingly hopeless causes. They have waited nearly 40 years for Castro to fall, and they seem willing to wait another 40 years.

"We never lose hope," said Ana Carbonell, 30, who works for a Miami congressman. "We have truth on our side."

Wire services contributed information for this article.

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