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Republicans Criticize Administration's Seizure of Elian Gonzalez

Aired April 23, 2000 - 2:45 p.m. ET


GENE RANDALL, CNN ANCHOR: Republicans have been reacting to the administration's handling of the operation to free Elian Gonzalez.

Our White House correspondent is Kelly Wallace -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Gene, this case has been politically charged ever since little Elian was found off the Florida coast on November, and so it should really be no surprise it continues to be politically charged. As you mentioned, Republican members of Congress are blasting the administration and Attorney General Janet Reno for this morning's raid.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said, quote, "The use of this type of force clearly was not justified. Negotiations were ongoing, administration appellate court proceedings were scheduled. When I awoke in my home town with my family today, Easter weekend, and learned of the tactics that had been used to seize Elian Gonzalez, my first thought was that this could only happen in Castro's Cuba. President Clinton should not have allowed this to happen."

Well, a short time ago, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said that the administration was deeply disappointed that Republicans were making this a political issue. Earlier in the day, Mr. Lockhart said that from the very beginning, Mr. Clinton tried to avoid politicizing this case.


JOE LOCKHART, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: This isn't about politics, and politics should be kept out of this. This is about who speaks for a young boy and whether a young boy should be with his father. I think what's happened today is, a young boy has been reunited with his father, and I think the time, as the president said, should be to give them space to -- so that they can be a family again.


WALLACE: To give you a little behind-the-scenes, the president and his chief of staff were in pretty much constant contact with the Justice Department. Mr. Clinton had two telephone calls with Attorney General Reno last night, and then at around 2 in the morning, Attorney General Reno called his chief of staff, John Podesta. Ms. Reno reportedly said that she was going to continue negotiations, but if those proved to be unsuccessful, she was going to take enforcement action. Mr. Podesta then telephoned the president, relayed this to him. He signed off and said he approved of the attorney general's decision.

And then shortly before 5:00 a.m., Reno called Podesta to say that the negotiations had broken down and that preparations were under way to go in and remove the boy -- Gene.

RANDALL: Kelly Wallace at the White House. Kelly, thanks very much.

With us now to describe the situation in the Little Havana section of Miami is Lieutenant Bill Schwartz, a spokesman for the Miami Police Department.

Lieutenant, it's good to have you with us. I know it's a very busy day.


RANDALL: Any days off for your department today?

SCHWARTZ: No, it's going to be some time, I'm afraid.

RANDALL: And what's the greatest challenge before you at the moment?

SCHWARTZ: Well, right now I think our greatest challenge is just to allow people the opportunity to vent, get this out of their system. Hopefully they can do it without causing any more violence. We had a short episode this morning of violence. But right now, I don't think we're having too much of that. But we want people to express themselves in a peaceful manner, and we're trying to get the message across that let's not make this any more of an international incident than it already has become.

RANDALL: Lieutenant, have you been helped or hurt by public officials in that city who called what happened this morning a crime?

SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, I don't like to second-guess public officials. It wouldn't be productive in this situation. All I know is that the community here has for a long time had a very, very passionate love for this boy, and they are now reacting to his removal.

WOODRUFF: Lieutenant, this is Judy Woodruff in Washington. We saw the pictures of you in front of the Gonzalez home this morning being jostled and perhaps worse. Can you describe in your own words what happened? And we're showing some pictures of it as we talk to you about it.

SCHWARTZ: Well, it wasn't my finest moment, to say the least. You know, I think there is really a minority of folks that wanted to cause me harm. I think I'd rather focus on the good people of Little Havana who were trying to help me, and there were quite a few of those, as well as fine police officers who were looking out for me.

WOODRUFF: What exactly, what exactly happened there?

SCHWARTZ: Well, I was doing an interview, and suddenly folks just turned on me. And this is very unusual for this crowd, and it's also very unusual for me. I have a good relationship with the public. We're not exactly sure what it was about. You know, earlier I had escorted some extremists, some troublemakers out of the area. There's -- some thought that they were trying to get revenge on me, and they were getting the crowd worked up.

You know, or maybe they were just associating the Miami Police Department with the federal government. But again, we had nothing to do with the removal of this boy.

WOODRUFF: Well, that's my question to you, lieutenant, Lieutenant Bill Schwartz. We want to tell our audience again, you are a spokesman for the Miami police. We see these crowds protesting some in the streets of Little Havana. And yet the people who are having to restrain them are Miami police, and yet we understand the folks there angry at the federal government. So the people who are having to deal with this...

And as I talk to you, Lieutenant Schwartz, we're showing live pictures of -- I think this is Little Havana, this is a -- they're scenes of smoke and -- I can't quite tell what's going on, because of our own graphic. It's a considerable amount of smoke, in fact, right in front of the area where CNN's correspondent Mark Potter has been stationed.

I don't know whether you've gotten any report from that area. But it looks like more smoke than we've seen at all, it looks as if there is a large fire of some sort that has -- is burning or has been burning in that area. It's very black smoke rising several hundreds of feet up into the air, covering the width of the street, and more.

My question, getting back to the question, lieutenant, though, is, the people they're protesting are the federal government, and yet the people having to deal with this are local authorities.

SCHWARTZ: Well, that's really kind of always the way it is, isn't it? You know, the police department always has to keep the peace no matter what happens. And that's just what we're doing right now. But I think it's important to recognize that the vast majority of people in this situation have just a very passionate feeling about it but are not causing us trouble.

We have always had some hoodlums, some dissidents in the group that are trying to incite a riot. Now, those are the folks we're dealing with, and that's why we're here today, and that's why we're involved.

RANDALL: Lieutenant, if your department is trying to short- circuit any possible flash point, which would make the situation even worse tonight, are you planning anything like a curfew in the area?

SCHWARTZ: No, I don't believe that's going to happen. You know, we have a full departmental mobilization. We're on Alpha-Bravo, that's two 12-hour shifts. We're all working day and night, and we're going to make sure that the good citizens of Miami are protected.

Now, that smoke you saw could very well have been caused by several tires set on fire. That causes an awful lot of smoke. But obviously we have our hands full. But we're optimistic we can handle it. This is nothing new for the city of Miami. You know, we kind of wrote the book on civil disobedience.

RANDALL: And lieutenant, if you had to characterize the situation in the streets right now, what word would you use?

SCHWARTZ: Well, right now it's a little unstable, but I think we have the personnel and the expertise to handle it.

RANDALL: Lieutenant Schwartz, thanks very much. Thanks for taking the time to be with us.

SCHWARTZ: My pleasure, thank you.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: And now to the scene of that smoke that we did see billowing up just a few moments ago in the streets of Little Havana, to CNN's Mark Potter, who's there close by -- Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I just heard Lieutenant Schwartz say it's a little unstable. I would say so. Still is.

The fire that you're looking at and you had questions about is in our area. It's the Flagler (ph) Street area at about West, I would say, 29 Avenue, 30 Avenue. It appears to be a fire that was set on the side of the road. I don't think that's a structure. We can't see for sure here. But we were seeing flames on the side of the road, and that's either tires burning or trash, furniture, something like that.

It's causing a little bit of a stir, quite a few people now are running up in that area. And if past is prologue, I can predict that the police are going to be heading up in that area shortly again too.

We've had a number of fires in this area, dumpsters, tires, furniture, things like that. The police each time have come in to control the crowd and then to clear the area so that the Miami Fire Department can come in to put those fires out.

I want to comment on this crowd that's here. This is a little different from what we saw today. This is a younger crowd out here now. The first group of protesters that were out here this morning were older. They carried a lot of signs. They were here directly because of the Elian Gonzalez matter, and their concern over it.

Now we see some of those people, but mostly these are young people, these are kids out here having a good time, for lack of a better way to describe it. And they're -- they've seen the fire, now they're running up to see what it's all about. There's some considerable excitement. There's not the political concern as evident here now as there was earlier this morning, an entirely different crowd.

We'll see what happens with this fire. I suspect that the authorities will get up there to put that out pretty quickly -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: So Mark, you're saying the folks you're seeing now, and we're seeing some of them in this camera -- from this camera angle, that these people are not so angry about the Elian Gonzalez removal from the home?

POTTER: It's hard to ascribe feelings to these people. I don't know what they're thinking. But it just looks different to me than what we saw before. That's all I'm saying. It's a younger crowd. They're out here riding around, running around, jumping up and down, seemingly having a good time. This is not the same sort of somber protest that we saw at the Elian Gonzalez house yesterday and probably today, where my colleague, Susan Candiotti, is. And it's not the same crowd that we saw this morning that was -- there were then lots of signs, an older crowd than we see now.

This, these seem to be more opportunist, just out because there's an event going on, and they want to be part of it. And I don't want to diminish the feeling in the community at all by saying that. There is widespread anger. But this particular group at this particular intersection is different, I'm telling you, than what I saw this morning.

Judy, back to you.

WOODRUFF: All right, Mark Potter there in Little Havana in Miami. And as you can see, the smoke from the -- too far away for Mark to be able to really tell what it is, but speculating that it's tires or trash or some such. And the smoke is billowing up in the air. And of course we'll keep an eye on that as we (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on this situation, described by the police spokesman just moments ago as still unstable.

We're going to take a break. More of our continuing coverage of the Elian Gonzalez removal from the home of his relatives in Miami, the reunion with his father, when we come back.




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