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Is Elian Gonzalez in Imminent Danger?

Aired April 18, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



DR. IRWIN REDLENER, PEDIATRICIAN: There's already evidence that this child is suffering from psychological abuse in an emotionally charged, highly political environment, and he needs to be removed from there.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, is Elian Gonzalez in imminent danger? A pediatrician advising the government says yes. Should Elian be taken away from his Miami relatives immediately?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, in New York, Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Hospital at Montefiore and the pediatrician advising the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and later, in Miami, Ramon Saul Sanchez, president of the Democracy Movement.


PRESS: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Elian Gonzalez is in serious danger and should be removed from the home of his Miami relatives and reunited with his father immediately. That's the conclusion of a blistering letter sent to Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner by a leading child psychologist (sic).

Dr. Irwin Redlener, our first guest tonight, who headed a team of health advisers on the Gonzalez case, told Reno -- quote -- "Elian Gonzalez is now in a state of imminent danger to his physical and emotional well-being in a home that I consider to be psychologically abusive" -- end quote.

Despite those strong words, so far, no change in the situation. Elian is still with his great-uncle in Miami, his father is still waiting in a home outside Washington, and the whole world is still waiting on the decision of a federal appeals court in Atlanta.

So tonight, will his Miami cousins ever give Elian back to his father or will the Justice Department have to move in by force? And do they dare to do so? Ahead, we'll be joined by Democracy Movement President Ramon Saul Sanchez, but first Dr. Redlener -- Bob.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Dr. Redlener, thanks for coming in. I'd like you to listen please to a comment made today about your statement by Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Florida.

Let's listen to it.


REP. LINCOLN DIAZ-BALART (R), FLORIDA: That psychiatrist (sic) is simply a hatchet man for the Clinton administration. And I wonder how much he was paid by Janet Reno. She must have been happy.

Usually when psychiatrists have an opinion, they talk to their subject, the child. What I would want is for psychiatrists to meet with Elian and to see him in the loving environment within which he has been since Thanksgiving Day.


NOVAK: Dr. Redlener, why didn't you ask to see the child or to enter the home and see the environment firsthand?

REDLENER: Well, first of all, Bob, I'm not actually a psychologist. I'm a pediatrician who has been working for 30 years with medically underserved children and in the field of child abuse, neglect for a good number of those years. And what I said in the letter, which is what I stand on, is that this child is in an environment that I think is absolutely negative for him. It is producing a whole series of consequences that I think are not in the best interests of the child, and I have strongly recommended, as a pediatrician, watching.

Unfortunately, the ability of the whole world to see what's going on with Elian Gonzalez is there because of the continuous coverage of this tragic situation. And then, we all were witness to the videotape that was made in the middle of the night and released a few day ago by the family.

And there are many, many signs that I have noted, as have many of my colleagues, that indicate.

This is not making a diagnosis in the child, by the way, Bob. This is simply saying that the situation the child is in is abusive and it's detrimental to this little boy's well-being.

NOVAK: Yes, sir...

REDLENER: I think he needs...

NOVAK: You -- you...

REDLENER: Yes, sorry. NOVAK: You reiterated what you said in the letter. But sir, I would like, in all due respect, I would like to you please address my question: Why did you not ask to see the child personally or to actually go to the home where he's living?

REDLENER: Well, I think the child should be seen, and his home environment should be evaluated.

NOVAK: Why didn't you ask to? Why didn't you ask?

REDLENER: Why didn't I ask to do what.

NOVAK: To see him, yes.

REDLENER: Well, I think he needs to be seen. I'd be happy to see him. But I there are plenty of experts down there who can see him.

NOVAK: I've asked you three times and you won't answer it. Let me -- let me...


NOVAK: Let me give you a firsthand account of the environment the child is living in, not by a Republican congressman, but by a -- an actually an objective TV journalist, Michele Gillen, a reporter for WFOR-TV in Miami. Let's listen to what she says.


MICHELE GILLEN, WFOR TV/MIAMI: What struck me walking past that fence, walking down the roadway, past the hundreds and hundreds of cameras out there was the sense of apparent normalcy in the house: relatives doing the wash, preparing food. Elian appeared, at least to the adults and observers in the house, as a regular little boy, running around.


NOVAK: And doctor, today, the little boy came out of the house. He waved several times. He had a little playmate he met, and he gave her a little kiss: hardly looked like a boy in great stress.

How do you -- how do you account that the people who actually have seen the house and the boy, unlike you, think it's such a normal environment?

REDLENER: Well, I think there's a lot more to it than you are describing, that the reporter is describing. How on Earth do you account for a 6-year-old child in the middle of the night being in a videotaped in a way that looks like he's been severely manipulated and coached? He's looking off to the side. He's looking for cues about what to say next. He's waving his finger at his father in a significant amount of anger, and he's claiming that he would prefer to live here versus somewhere else. And it's absolutely implausible to suggest that a 6-year-old has the intellectual capacity to evaluate one social system versus another system and to -- to allege...

NOVAK: Do you have the ability to...

REDLENER: ... some of the things he's alleged.

NOVAK: Do you have the ability to evaluate the communist system of Cuba as opposed to our social system?

REDLENER: Well, I don't think we are -- I don't think we're -- this is not a question of evaluating the communist system in Cuba. What we're talking about...

NOVAK: It is for some of us.

REDLENER: Well, by my guest to evaluate it. I'm telling you that it's very important for a 6-year-old child who has witnessed the horrendously traumatic death of his mother to be reunited with his surviving, caring, biologic parent. And to keep him...

NOVAK: Let me just ask you one thing. Bill referred to you as a leading child psychologist.

PRESS: I was wrong.


NOVAK: And you're not a -- so you're practicing psychiatry and psychology without a license, aren't you?

REDLENER: I'm not. No, I'm a pediatrician.

NOVAK: Thank you, doctor.

REDLENER: I'm a pediatrician.

PRESS: Let me ask you, Dr. Redlener, let me ask you this. Is there any way you can describe a home which is surrounded by TV cameras, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of supporters all day long, a home a little boy is not allowed to leave because he's being held there illegally, who can't go to school and hasn't gone to school for several weeks now, and is paraded out every day for the TV cameras, is there any way that you as a pediatrician could describe that home as a normal environment?

REDLENER: It's a completely abnormal environment with a tremendously negative potential consequences for this child. And I think the situation you are describing is absolutely unacceptable as is -- what we saw in the videotape, as is this constant attempt to alienate the child from his biologic father.

All of this creates a scenario which I am saying as a pediatrician who has been working with abused children and other kinds of underserved children for 30 years that in fact this is an abnormal and very, very important situation to be noted and to be evaluated. And I think you cannot evaluate it while he's still there. He's got to be removed. He's got to go back to his dad. And then both families have to work together to make sure the transition can take place in a positive environment.

PRESS: All right. Now you, Doctor, you have mentioned a couple of times this videotape that was released last week...


PRESS: ... made, as you said, in the middle of the night. This videotape, not the one we're watching now, but the videotape where Elian -- there it is...


PRESS: ... is sitting on his bed. He wags his finger. He's talking to his father. And he says, you know, why don't you stay, and I'm not going back to Cuba.

My question, having watched that videotape, with your experience, is there any way a 6-year-old is capable of making that videotape on his own?

REDLENER: Bill, I've never seen anything like this with respect to a 6-year-old. This is specifically why 6-year-olds are not given decision-making authority in deciding, for example, on custody in divorce situations, because they do not have the emotional or intellectual capacity to evaluate this. That's the job of adults.

This whole scenario -- and if you watch where the edit is, for example, in that videotape, you see him looking off to the side for another cue.

PRESS: But doctor, Let me ask you this...


PRESS: It is -- it is the boy speaking.


PRESS: It is the boy saying he wants to stay here. So don't we have to take that seriously?

REDLENER: I think we have to take everything seriously. But we also have to understand that a 6-year-old is incredibly vulnerable to being manipulated. I mean, you know, what does it take to make a 6- year-old like Disney World versus, you know, going to some other attraction some place? It's a whole series of input that this kid has been getting to alienate him from his natural father. And I think that's a very abnormal and potentially destructive situation for him.

NOVAK: Dr. Redlener, we just have about a minute to go, and I'd like to raise a couple of points. You told Bill Hemmer on our -- our anchor, earlier today that the boy, Elian, had bitten a therapist. You didn't put that in your letter. I can find no evidence of anybody saying that. Who told that you?

REDLENER: It's been reported in two sources I can get for you, but that he...

NOVAK: Tell us who the sources are. It's not verified by anybody.

REDLENER: It was verified by one of the psychologists that's treating him. I don't remember her name. But it's verifiable, and it's an important aspect...

NOVAK: They told you? They told you, doctor?

REDLENER: I read it in a newspaper report of an...

NOVAK: You're just -- you're just reporting rumors, and you know, that -- that is really disreputable for a professional man to go on national television and say something like that when you don't have a basis for it.

REDLENER: Mr. Novak, I'm sorry, you're misinterpreting this entire scenario for this child, and I'm telling you...

NOVAK: I don't care about scenarios; I'm talking about facts.

REDLENER: The facts are that we've all witnessed on the television a child kept in isolation, kept from school, kept in an environment that is entirely abnormal.

NOVAK: You are filibustering, but I just can't believe that you would go on television and make an accusation like that by something you read in a newspaper. We have made a search, and we can find it in no public prints?

REDLENER: I'll be happy to get that for you. I'm telling you that there is a series of things that are of deep concern to us, and this is why something has to be done as soon as possible.

NOVAK: All right, thank you very much, Dr. Redlener.

We're going to take a break.

And when we come back, we'll talk about a new actor in this drama: the United Nations talking about what a place this little boy will return to in Cuba.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

The Cuban-Americans who are trying to prevent Elian Gonzalez from being sent back to Cuba got a rare boost today from -- would you believe it? -- the United Nations. In Geneva, Switzerland, the U.N. Human Rights Forum adopted a resolution denouncing Cuba for repressing political dissent and religious groups. Does that make any difference where Elian should wind up?

We're asking Ramon Saul Sanchez, who heads the democracy movement, a Cuban-American organization -- Bill.

PRESS: Mr. Sanchez, the last time you were on CROSSFIRE, I remember well, you said that you were a law-abiding citizen, that the family of Elian's relatives are law-abiding Americans, that when they are asked to turn the child over to his father they will willingly do so, they will obey the law.

My question to you is now, 10 days later, why are they refusing to obey the law? Why are they openly breaking the law?

RAMON SAUL SANCHEZ, PRESIDENT, DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT: They're not breaking the law. Obviously, they have said that they will respect the law. What they have said is that they will not become part of taking the child anywhere, that if the authorities want the child, that they can come in here and take him, and I think they have the right to do that without breaking the law.

PRESS: So Mr. Sanchez, your definition of the law is, and truth is, that the Justice Department has now said that they are holding this child, Elian Gonzalez, illegally. So what you're saying is they will only obey the law when the police break into the house and force them to obey the law. Is that your definition of democracy, sir?

SANCHEZ: No, sir. The attorneys have clearly said up to this point that there is no law at this point compelling them to take the child anywhere, that the authorities are entitled to come over here and take the child if they want to, and they don't want to leave in the mind of the child that they were part of sending the child back to a police state where he doesn't want to go back to, obviously.

PRESS: Well, this is a strange definition how you obey the law, if you ask me. But let me move on and ask you -- Bob was talking about wild accusations that people have made. Mr. Sanchez, the family also said, we won't give the boy back to anybody but his father.

Now his father is in the United States, and suddenly, we hear all these wild accusations that the father is guilty of physically abusing the boy's mother and physically abusing the boy back in Cuba. I ask you, what evidence do you or the family have for those accusations?

SANCHEZ: There are testimonies of people who are here, who knew Juan Miguel, who have been film -- or had filmed from Cuba, sharing in social activities in Cuba, who say that Juan Miguel is a violent person, that Juan Miguel has mistreated the child; and there is a testimony of another person who says that Juan Miguel mistreated the wife. So these are things...

PRESS: Well, so that is the rumors that are being spread about Miami. Let me show you what Marisleysis Gonzalez, the young woman there who has done an excellent job of taking care of Elian Gonzalez for the last four months, here's what she told a Senate committee, or a congressional committee in Washington, just last month.

On March 1, she was here in Washington, and she said -- quote -- "I know for a fact that he" -- speaking of Juan Miguel -- "I know for a fact that he is a good father, and he loves his son."

Now, Mr. Sanchez, you can't have it both ways. What evidence do you have since she made that statement that Juan Miguel is an abusive father?

SANCHEZ: You know, a lot of fathers, a lot of parents love their children, and yet, they mistreat them. This family...

PRESS: What evidence, sir?

SANCHEZ: There are testimonies, obviously, that people have come over here, and the press have interviewed them. There are affidavits before a court of law. There are evidence of people who witnessed these things in Cuba that you can interview here.

NOVAK: Mr. Sanchez, do you believe that if Juan Miguel wanted to visit his son in Miami, he would be permitted to by the family?

SANCHEZ: Absolutely.

NOVAK: Why do you think he hasn't?

SANCHEZ: Because Castro has him under his control. And Castro is the one not allowing Juan Miguel to come out of the Cuban Interests Section to have this family meeting, which will be the ideal solution for this problem.

NOVAK: The highest human rights organ of the United Nations, in Geneva today, as I mentioned earlier, had passed a resolution denouncing Cuba as a dictatorship, where personal religious freedoms are violated. How much attention do you think that is going to get in the U.S. news media?

SANCHEZ: I wish it would get the appropriate attention, because this is the issue here: This child is going to be sent back to Cuba, and because of the prominence of this case, specifically this child is going to be subjected to psychological harm that will be irreversible, and perhaps even his physical disappearance, if he decides not to adhere to what Castro wants him to, in three or four years from now, he makes public statements different from what we wants to hear.

NOVAK: Mr. Sanchez, I would say right now that one of the most unpopular groups in America are the Cuban-Americans in Miami, who have, I think, they've been good Americans, they've been hard working, they've made a new life in this country, they've supported the United States, but all the polling data indicates you are very, very unpopular. Why do you think that is?

SANCHEZ: Ignorance is the best light of injustice. Unfortunately, a lot of people ignore these realities that we see the United Nations saying today -- the environment in Cuba, the conditions in Cuba that this child is going to be sent back to. This issue has also been brought out of perspective. It has been argued that we don't want the father to reunite with the son when that is not the issue here. We love the family. We sent a billion dollars of aid every year to our family in Cuba, despite the fact that we have political differences with the Cuban dictator.

However, our contention has been that the best interest of the child is at risk if he is sent back to Cuba, and it doesn't have anything to do with the custody.

PRESS: Mr. Sanchez, we just about have a minute. I want to ask you on another matter. It's been an accepted fact for four months now that Elian's market gave her life coming here so her son could have a better life here in the United States. You put a lot of stock into the testimony of the people of Cuba.

I want to read you a quote that's in this issue of "George" magazine from a woman in Cuba who was a best friend of Elian's deceased mother. Quote: "That is a bunch of lies, that the boy should go to the land of liberty. Those thoughts were never expressed by Elisabeth. They were never her ideals, nor her thoughts. I can say that for sure, she would have followed, Lazaro" -- her boyfriend -- "anywhere in the world."

So, Mr. Sanchez, according to that, she came here because she loved this rogue who thrown out of her parents' house, not for any reason. Do you accept that?

SANCHEZ: Do you think a mother would risk her life and her son's life just for that? I think that's irrational. I think people have to look beyond that, and the person who's making that statement is in Cuba. And unfortunately, in Cuba, you don't say what you think, or you go to jail.

PRESS: Mr. Sanchez, thank you very much for joining us again tonight. I'm sure we'll be talking to you again.

Bob Novak and I will be back with closing comments.


PRESS: OK, CROSSFIRE is not the only place you are going find me and Mary Matalin. Tomorrow night, we're kicking off a special new segment on CNN's "NEWSSTAND." Twice a month, we'll be joining Judy Woodruff for "CROSSFIRE Extra," a chance for you to get the inside track on how the candidates are tackling some of the major issues of this campaign 2000. That's "CROSSFIRE Extra" on CNN NEWSSTAND, tomorrow night at 10:00 Eastern.

Bob, you know, in the last 10 days, only one thing has changed in this whole situation, and that is that these Miami cousins now are no longer just the Miami cousins; they're the Miami outlaws, because they're withholding this kid illegally, and only Cuban-Americans could get away with that.

NOVAK: That's a lot nonsense. It's part of the whole denigration of the Cuban-American community. And I know what you're after on this.

But I want to say this. We usually, on these closing comments, we usually don't attack the guests we've had. But I'm going to break the rules, because I think Dr. Redlener's performance was absolutely astounding, practicing psychiatry and psychology without a license, making these judgments, passing off rumors. And this just indicates, when they put him out as a spokesman for the U.S. government, I'm ashamed of my own government that they will go to any lengths to send this boy back, not to his father, Bill, but to Fidel Castro, your friend.

PRESS: I don't think you have to go see this boy, you don't have to be in that home to know that this is an abusive situation. I applaud the doctor. Democracy, Bob, means obeying the law, too.

NOVAK: You're as bad as the doctor then.

PRESS: That boy belongs to his father.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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