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Little Havana Protests Administration's Handling of Elian Gonzalez

Aired April 22, 2000 - 12:02 p.m. ET


GENE RANDALL, CNN ANCHOR: There has been a climactic moment. U.S. Immigration officials have seized 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Miami's Little Havana community where Elian has been living for five months is denouncing the government's actions.

RANDALL: Elian and his father were brought together at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

We welcome viewers of CNN International to a special edition of CNN SATURDAY.

I'm Gene Randall in Washington.

WOODRUFF: And I'm Judy Woodruff.

RANDALL: Elian Gonzalez and his father, Juan Miguel, were reunited early this morning, nearly five months after the Cuban boy's dramatic rescue from the waters off Florida. More than 100 U.S. immigration agents, some with guns drawn, forcibly removed Elian from the Little Havana home of his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez in a lightning pre-dawn raid. The boy was found in a closet in the arms of one of the fisherman who had rescued him.

Attorney General Janet Reno launched the operation after the latest round of negotiations to resolve the high-profile custody case failed early this morning.

We're going now to Miami, where there is great unrest in the streets. And Mark Potter is there -- Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're looking at a situation right now in Miami's Little Havana at the intersection of West 27th Avenue and Flagler street, where police are arresting a photographer. A news photographer is being led away by the police right now. The police moved into this area about 10, 15 minutes ago, retaking control of this area that had been -- that they had abandoned for a while. The protesters were out here on the streets in force, setting fire to some trash, to a trash dumpster. And then the police came back in riot gear, firing tear gas, spraying pepper spray and resuming control of this area. A moment ago we also saw another man being arrested after he apparently broke a window at a gas station across the street from us. You're looking now at that trash dumpster on West 27th Avenue that was set fire a while ago. The police came in, established control of the area, then the fire department came in and put the fire out.

The police clearly are in a no-nonsense mood here, and most of the protesters have been chased away. They had parked cars in the middle of the intersection and were chanting, jumping up and down, even throwing bottles at some of the law enforcement officers who were trying to come into this scene, as it appeared for just a short while, maybe a half an hour, that the police had abandoned the area, had established a perimeter around it, were letting people blow off steam. But that didn't last very long, and the police came back in much bigger force than they had been here before, wearing gas masks, with their riot gear, with their shields, and clearly clearing out the area very effectively.

The people -- the people ran away to the west and to the south. It looks like this situation is standing down a little bit now. The police offices are taking off their helmets, as you can see, and their gas masks. I can tell you personally that the air is much cleaner now than it was a short while ago. The gas is very effective in changing people's direction. And it worked. And the people have been moved.

Now there are a number of these incidents, we're told, around the Little Havana area, and this is just one, and one more of them that has blown up this morning. Police of course concerned that as the news spreads of what happened with Elian Gonzalez that this could continue throughout the day. People are extremely angry here and feel betrayed by the U.S. government.

Gene, back to you.

RANDALL: Mark, while we are seeing pictures now that we have not seen before, fires in the streets, the use of tear gas and pepper spray, you indicate a few minutes ago that given the way the situation has been building all morning we should not be surprised at what we are seeing now?

POTTER: No, we shouldn't. Anybody who has lived in this community, who has witnessed the other events that have occurred here, knows how explosive things can be. And this was a very passionate issue that had been building for months. And they're really -- I think the best word to describe the way people feel is betrayed, at least in the Cuban-American community. There was last-minute hope that maybe there could be some sort of settlement. And when the images were broadcast today of the agents going in to get the boy, that just sparked a seething anger that had been building and building, and now we have this.

This is not, by the way, all of Miami. This is not by any stretch all the Cuban-American community. This is a relatively small part of the city itself. a small part of the county. And even though there may be several thousand people out here, a relatively small part of the 700,000 to 800,000 member Cuban-American community. That perspective needs to be made. Miami is not on fire. This is an intersection.

RANDALL: All right, Mark, thank you very much. We'll get back to you shortly -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: And now to the home of Elian Gonzalez' relatives there in Miami, just a few blocks from where you're seeing all of this police action in Miami.

Let's go to CNN Susan Candiotti -- Susan.


For the most part throughout the morning and early afternoon, this crowd has been under control. We have not seen a strong police presence here. As one of the police officials told us, they're allowing people to remain around this house, to express their frustration and their anger at the government, and to allow them to stay here as long as they feel it is necessary -- at least that's what officials have said thus far.

Now from time to time, there are angry words and they are -- when the people time begin to chant, they begin to vent their anger and frustration also at reporters who have been covering this story. And about an hour or so ago, a lieutenant for the Miami Police Department, Lieutenant Bill Schwartz (ph), found himself in the middle of everything. He's actually a spokesperson for the police department -- there you see him, the tall gentleman with the mustache.

As he explained to me moments ago over the telephone, he said that it was all very baffling to him what had occurred to him personally. He said that he was conducting interviews with various reporters and then had moved over to help a young girl who, he said, was experiencing convulsions. After that, he said, he was standing in the front yard of the home when before now it, according to Lieutenant Schwartz, before you know it, it, someone started shoving him around, punching him, throwing plastic water bottles at him. And one person, he said, tried to pull his gun away from him out of his holster.

He said that at that point, some Cuban exiles who were in the crowd tried to help escort, him along with members of the Miami Police Department, and he was taken away, shaken but nevertheless he was unhurt.

Now as this is going on, we can tell you that earlier this day, there was at least one member of the legal team inside the home during the course of negotiations before 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez was seized by federal agents. That is attorney is Kendall Coffey. And U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said during the course of the negotiations that the family here kept adding one demand after another. Every time she said the government would give something that the family kept asking for something more. Well, attorney Kendall Coffey takes issue with that. That's not how he sees it.


KENDALL COFFEY, GONZALEZ FAMILY ATTORNEY: As all of know this past Wednesday, the appellate court sent a very strong message about the importance of the rights of Elian Gonzalez. And in that opinion, which was a stinging defeat to the INS, they said several times -- and they emphasized -- that the INS had never met Elian Gonzalez. Well this morning at 5:15, at gunpoint, with tear gas, after a night of infamy, of negotiations that were a charade, that caused the community to believe that all was well and that parties were trying to proceed to good-faith negotiations, after that night, the INS finally decided to meet with Elian Gonzalez in the most disgraceful way possible.


CANDIOTTI: Now what happens next? Well, as we understand it, according to a family spokesperson for the Gonzalez family here, various members of this family, including Marisleysis, the young cousin who has been taking care of the youngster, she is 21 years old, along with her father, Lazaro Gonzalez, and other family members are intending to fly to Washington within a half hour or so to head up there in an attempt, according to their representative, to try to see Elian. Now how they hope to accomplish that remains unclear. And at this stage, given the animosity among both families. it also seems very unlikely.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, reporting live.

Back to you, Judy and Gene.

WOODRUFF: Susan, just a question about the people there in front of the Gonzalez home. Tell us, are they mostly men, women? In terms of age, are they older, younger? Are there children there? How would you characterize who these people are?

CANDIOTTI: Well this represents a very loyal segment of the Cuban exile community. And there is a broad age range represented here. Young and old alike, mothers, I even saw a gentleman carrying his young child on his shoulders while the father was trying to balance the child and at the same time wave a flag over his head expressing his anger at the U.S. government for what has occurred here.

So -- and it's -- many of these people have been here day after day for the past several months, maintaining a round-the-clock vigil in an attempt at least symbolically to try to prevent federal agents, or urge the U.S. government, to not come here and do what they did this day.

As far as these people see it, no good can come out of a reunion, even though it is a matter of putting together a young boy with his father. As these people see it -- and they continue to say -- the boy is not going back to his father, they say he's going back to Fidel Castro. And they continue to maintain in their view that the boy will somehow be brainwashed when he is -- when he goes back to his father.

So unfortunately, from this end of things, they see no good coming of a union, they see only evil, as they put it.

WOODRUFF: All right, CNN's Susan Candiotti. We, of course, are going to be coming back to you throughout this day outside the home of the Gonzalez family -- Gene.

RANDALL: We're going once again to Mark Potter, who is five blocks away from Lazaro Gonzalez's home. There is a very tense situation in the streets there, as Miami police are clearly trying to guard against flashpoints which could make the situation even worse -- Mark.

POTTER: Well, we're looking at a situation here that is changing somewhat. The police, who were maintaining a line at the intersection of 27th Avenue and West Flagler Street in Miami's Little Havana, have now moved forward a bit, just trying to chase the crowd to the west. They also cleared out a gas station where we are standing now looking at the crowd. There were some people here, and they have moved them away.

We're watching -- we have watched a number of arrests be made, most of them occurring at least in the last couple of minutes, nonviolently. People who would not follow the police order to move were handcuffed and walked away. And so the police are now very much trying to gain control of this intersection. They came in in force here -- I've lost track of the time -- maybe half an hour ago, firing tear gas, spraying pepper gas and clearing the intersection out that had been taken over by the protesters in this business area of Little Havana. And now they are -- they are moving -- the police moved in, and they are now extending their perimeter somewhat, trying to move the crowd away from this area.

This has been largely a nonviolent event. I mean, there have been some fires have been set, some bottles were thrown at a fire vehicle that tried to come into the area when the crowd had control of it. But we have not seen, at least at this stage, any serious injuries. There was some scuffling earlier at the time of some of the arrest, but that's it so far.

So this is a very tense situation. The crowd here very angry over the Elian Gonzalez situation, extremely angry with the Clinton administration's and the Justice Department's handling of this situation. And this is not a surprise. Officials worried that this would happen. Longtime residents who have been through this before, incidents like this before, were worried that there would be problems, and indeed those prediction sadly have come true -- Gene.

RANDALL: All right, Mark Potter, thank you very much.

We have a statement just released by Vice President Al Gore, of course the Democratic candidate for president. If reads, quote, "As I have said, I believe this issue should have been handled through a family court and with a family coming together." That parenthetically is a break with administration policy, by the way,

And he goes on to say, "I commend the people of Miami, who in the first hours acted in a calm and lawful way" -- that is not the case now, another parenthetical comment -- "and I ask that all Americans, no matter what their position on this issue, obey the rule of law."

That once again from Vice President Al Gore. The reunion of father and son this morning, Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his 6-year-old son Elian took place at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, and Patty Davis is there -- Patty.

We don't have Patti Davis. We'll get to her when we can, but right know we'll take a break.



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