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Both Sides with Jesse Jackson

Did the Government Take the Wrong Course of Action in the Way it Reunited Elian with His Father?

Aired April 23, 2000 - 5:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JESSE JACKSON, HOST: Welcome to BOTH SIDES.

The extraordinary turn of events in the Elian Gonzalez case is the subject of much debate. Did the government take the wrong course of action in the way it reunited Elian with his father? Is the damage this saga has caused in the Cuban American community too deep to be repaired?

We're going to talk about the impact of the Elian ordeal with two guests. First, the latest developments in the case.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GENE RANDALL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Gene Randall in Washington.

The Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez continue to lash out at the federal government. Once again today, they were turned away as they tried to visit the 6-year-old at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

The boy's second cousin Marisleysis, meanwhile, questioned the authenticity of photos showing Elian in his father's arms.

MARISLEYSIS GONZALEZ, ELIAN GONZALEZ'S COUSIN: Look how short his hair is here. Look how short the hair looks when he was taken out of the house. And look how long the hair is in the picture that they show today. That is not Elian smiling because if Elian would have wanted to be with his father, I would have taken him to his father.

GREGORY CRAIG, ATTORNEY FOR JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ: That's absurd. And for anybody to be paying any serious attention or consideration to that allegation is absurd. That photograph came out of a disposable camera that Juan Miguel himself had. And I think it was taken by either an INS agent or marshal.

RANDALL: There is now the specter of congressional hearings on the forcible removal of Elian from Miami. Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said the Senate Judiciary Committee should take a close look at the government break-in. And GOP House Majority Whip Tom DeLay described the raid as a frightening event. Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno has agreed to meet Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss all this. A quiet Easter Sunday in Miami, a stark contrast to yesterday's angry anti-government street protests that stretched far into the night. The day began with an outdoor sunrise service for a mainly Cuban exile Catholic parish.

Bishop Augustin Roman (ph) celebrated the mass and prayed for a Gonzalez family reconciliation. The Cuban Americans there disputed a Miami poll that showed most people in the city approved of the Justice Department's action.

Brian Nelson will be here at the top of the hour with "World View." I'm Gene Randall. Have a great week. Now back to BOTH SIDES with Jesse Jackson.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JACKSON: Welcome back.

Joining me from New Orleans is George Fowler, attorney for Cuban American National Foundation. His organization strongly supports Elian's Miami relatives.

With me in Washington is Sean Garcia, Washington executive director of the Cuban Committee for Democracy. His organization supports normalized relations with Cuba.

Welcome, both of you, to the program.

George, when you woke up this morning and saw that scene on TV, how did you feel?

GEORGE FOWLER, ATTORNEY, CUBAN AMERICAN NATIONAL FOUNDATION: Very sad, like all of us, victims of the Castro regime. I came to this country, Jesse, when I was 9 years old. And I know what Elian fears. Elian does not want to go back to Cuba. Elian has made it very clear.

And because when he goes back to Cuba, you've lost your life. You know, we've tried to get the word out throughout the world. We've had difficulty. The dissidents in Cuba are beaten. They're tortured. And their only crimes are speaking against the government...

JACKSON: Well, you know, when I asked you the question, the first thing you said before you said how you felt was Castro. Is not the real issue here Castro rather than Elian himself?

FOWLER: Unfortunately, if you -- our concern is sending Elian back to Cuba. You know, we'd be delighted for him to be reunited with his father in the United States.

Remember, Jesse, his mother died to bring him to freedom. We take freedom for granted in this country. A lot of people simply do not know what we're doing when we send Elian back to Cuba.

Listen, watch his father. For four months, he was not allowed to come to the United States to see his son. And when he was allowed to come, he's sent to the Cuban interest section where he's surrounded by a bunch of thugs. Is that what we're going to send Elian back to, Jesse?

JACKSON: I think at this point the continuous name-calling is not going to bring these families closer together. Sean, when you saw the raid and the rescue today, what were your feelings?

SEAN GARCIA, WASHINGTON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, CUBAN COMMITTEE FOR DEMOCRACY: I was incredibly saddened just to see that the negotiations had come to the point where the only conclusion was to bring in that incredible use of force. At the same time, I did feel that this conflict had drawn on for too long.

The father of this child has been in the country for over two weeks and has been asking to have his son returned to him. The Miami family has been protracting the negotiations trying to keep this child in Miami. And at some point, the government just had to realize that if the family was not willing to cooperate to return to the child, they did need to make some changes.

JACKSON: Were you born in Cuba?

GARCIA: I was born here in the United States and raised in Miami.

JACKSON: You're Cuban American?

GARCIA: Yes I am.

FOWLER: Jesse?

JACKSON: George.

FOWLER: I have been involved in the negotiations in this case from the very beginning. We have proposed countless times for Lazaro, Marisleysis, Delfin, family of Juan Miguel to meet with each other. But they won't allow him to meet with the family because they're afraid he's going to defect.

Why do you think he's in the Washington Cuban interest section and not in Miami where his son is? There was absolutely no violence today...

JACKSON: But George...

FOWLER: ... He should have come to be with his family. They're now allowing him because Castro is afraid that he is going to defect.

JACKSON: ... But George, there has been so much hostility between the Cuban Americans and Cuba, so many attacks on Juan Miguel himself. Don't you think he would have been afraid to come to Miami?

FOWLER: No. There's no reason to be afraid. Look, they brought all these guns and everything, took Elian out of there at the point of a gun. That was ridiculous. The Cubans, what were we going to fight with, rosaries? We have no guns like Castro. We have no armies. We don't have goons to intimidate and hurt people.

We are prayerful, law abiding citizens. And we proved it again today. If you saw trouble in the streets of Miami today, those were caused by Castro's egans (ph). He dupes our country. He fools us. This guy is a monster. He's a manipulator.

JACKSON: George, let Sean respond.

GARCIA: I think that the reverend does have a very important point there that while the family was making various proposals to actually meet with Juan Miguel, all those proposals were to meet with Juan Miguel in Miami on their turf. There were no...

FOWLER: No, wrong, wrong. I made a deal for Juan Miguel to come to Washington, DC, with Elian and the family to meet -- excuse me, for Lazaro to come with Marisleysis and Elian to meet in Washington, DC, in the Vatican embassy...

GARCIA: But at no time was Elian actually turned over to his father, who has real custody of this child...

FOWLER: ... Then the following morning -- may I just finish -- may I just finish, please...

(CROSSTALK)

JACKSON: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, George, George, let me ask a question. Did it come down to this, that Attorney General Reno said the father should have custody. The relatives in Miami said it should be joint custody. And did she not reject the idea of joint custody as opposed to father custody of the son?

FOWLER: The negotiations were clear from the beginning from Mr. Craig. There has to be a turnover of the child, otherwise there will be no meeting. All right, that was the scenic (ph) went on. In other words, he won't talk to Lazaro, won't talk to anybody. Juan Miguel will not talk to anybody unless there is a turnover of the child. And that was a condition that Lazaro was not willing to meet until...

JACKSON: So the real point was that the father have custody and then talk to the family, would there be joint custody. Didn't it come down to that?

FOWLER: That could have been easily arranged.

JACKSON: But it was not arranged. That...

FOWLER: It was not arranged because...

JACKSON: ... Was that not the innermost point about father custody, then family, as opposed to joint custody?

FOWLER: ... We proposed joint custody, meetings in compounds, all kinds of things. But from the other side, we only heard, "You've go to turn over the child. You've got to turn over the child."

In fact, during one of the negotiations that I had through Senator Torricelli, it was painted to me as he will meet with his father for a few minutes and then the meeting will go on, because I demanded a three-hour minimum meeting. I wasn't hearing this from the other side...

JACKSON: George...

FOWLER: ... They were demanding a 30-minute meeting.

JACKSON: ... we are going to come back because the issue does boil down to was the government right to demand custody for the father? Should it have compromised on joint custody? We'll be right back and talk more about this extraordinary saga that's unfolding, the Elian Gonzalez return to his father made possible today by the U.S. government and its agents.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JACKSON: Welcome back. We're talking about the impact of the Elian Gonzalez case with George Fowler of the Cuban American National Foundation and Sean Garcia of the Cuban Committee for Democracy.

Sean, we saw the picture today of the soldier, the gun, and the fisherman and the son. On the contrast, the large gathering of crowds there today, do those crowds seem as threatening or dangerous to you?

GARCIA: I think the biggest question with the crowds here is that during the negotiation where the family in Miami kept on insisting that they were wanting a transition from the family in Miami to the father Juan Miguel in a situation that was not traumatic for the child, the fact that they had those crowds outside of the house first of all caused the need for armed guns to go into that situation and remove the child forcefully.

If the family had asked demonstrators to leave their front lawn and they were willing to receive agents of the INS without the commotion outside, without people who were throwing chairs at vans as they were leaving, there would not have been a need for force. But as long as that was there, the INS had to provide some measures of protection for their agents.

JACKSON: So George, Sean is suggesting that the large buildup of crowds represented the delay and defiance and danger that provoked the raid and the rescue that took place on Saturday.

FOWLER: Jesse, I can't even believe this man is saying this. The Cuban American community is a peaceful community. Castro has killed 18,000 people in political assassinations. No one has ever been hurt in Miami. No one. Eighteen thousand people. And that's not counting the people he's thrown in jail.

I brought that dissident leader who was just thrown out of Cuba... GARCIA: None of those people are involved in this Elian Gonzalez case. And that has nothing to do with the removal of this child from that house.

FOWLER: I mean, the people who are out there were old women praying with rosaries.

GARCIA: There's very good footage on TV this morning of people throwing chairs and rocks and anything they could find on the street at INS agents...

FOWLER: They were...

GARCIA: ... If those agents needed to go in and remove that child from that house, they needed to have some protection from crowds who if they were much larger than just 40 people outside the house could have attacked those people.

FOWLER: They had M-16s. Oh, for goodness sakes, what a ridiculous overreaction to a bunch of people that have been -- all the -- most of the demonstrations have been prayer vigils. These are people praying for Elian because they know that what's going to happen to him in Cuba is horrible from personal experience.

GARCIA: And at the same time, these were the same people who had said that they would prevent the removal of Elian from that house to the point that they were forming human chains around that house and calling people out of work to make sure that they had as many people there as possible to prevent the INS from entering that house.

JACKSON: George, let me ask you a question.

FOWLER: Yes, sir.

JACKSON: My impression, having talked to Juan Miguel, is that he is going to stay here and honor the court process. He's not going to take him to Cuba like next week some time.

Now having said that, when Elian goes back to Cuba, will you fight to keep the wall up though he's behind the wall, or will you fight to build the bridge that can have more access to Elian and the other little Elians of Cuba?

FOWLER: I would do anything to improve the situation in Cuba. But listen, it's been there, the same leader 41 years, not a democratic election in any of those years.

JACKSON: Come (ph) and answer this question then. Because right now last year 100,000 Cuban Americans went back to Cuba...

GARCIA: 135.

JACKSON: ... not one incident. There is now direct flights. There is now telephone connection. Churches are now being built. Some things are changing in Cuba. So now shall you fight harder with Elian going back to keep building that bridge? Or shall you fight to make the wall higher and tighter?

FOWLER: I will do anything to build the bridge with the Cuban people. The unfortunate situation, Jesse, is that Castro owns and controls everything. So everything that goes to Cuba, he has a hand in. And therefore, it doesn't get to the Cuban people.

For example, if you want to do a deal in Cuba and open up a hotel in Cuba, Fidel Castro is the person with whom you do the deal with. All right? And then you pay him international wages for the worker that's working there, say $10 an hour. But that worker gets $20 a month.

JACKSON: But the point is, if 135,000 people visited Cuba last year, Cuban Americans, if they have direct telephone access, they're not calling Castro, they're calling their relatives. It seems to me, George, as we're at this point now, if we can encourage...

(CROSSTALK)

JACKSON: ... If we can encourage North and South Korea to talk, and U.S. and China to talk with their strong disagreement, and Barak and Arafat to talk, and Mandela and DeClerk to talk, it seems to me that maybe talking this thing out may be a better way than just continuing the kind of hot riddle (ph).

FOWLER: I'll be glad to talk to him. But he's got to give in something...

JACKSON: I'll tell you what, we're going to take a break...

FOWLER: ... It can't be one way only.

JACKSON: ... We're going to take a break and come back and talk about what would the two-way street look like between Castro and Cuban Americans? I'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JACKSON: George, you know, the day when this thing broke on Saturday, Castro says time for a truce. You're now saying we should talk with Cuba, but he has to give something. That sounds like the beginning of talking rather than expanding the embargo.

FOWLER: Let's not talk about the embargo, Jesse. But you're a leader in the world. If you can arrange a meeting with somebody, the leadership of Cuba, other than Fidel Castro, who we think we cannot talk to because we think he's not well in the head...

JACKSON: But you...

FOWLER: ... If you can find someone at the top leadership, the Cuban American leaders I'm sure willing to talk to them...

JACKSON: ... I want to pursue this, George, because you know, in these kinds of fights you have to talk with your enemy, not with your friends... FOWLER: OK, now...

JACKSON: ... wait a minute. For a long time, the Israelis wanted to talk to everybody but Arafat, but he was the PLO leader...

FOWLER: ... We're willing...

JACKSON: ... You finally have to talk with the person with whom you have the disagreement to bring peace.

FOWLER: ... But you must bear the reality of this. Juan Miguel Gonzalez is staying at the house with Ramirez Destenos (ph). He's Castro's minister. When he came to Tulane to give a talk, I went right up to him to try to talk to him. He said, "Mr. Fowler, I'm not allowed to talk to you."

OK, so that's the problem. Castro doesn't let anybody under him cast a shadow. And he doesn't allow communications between the exile community leadership and his people...

(CROSSTALK)

JACKSON: Sean, we're hearing something now. What we're hearing is Castro said today -- yesterday -- we should have truce.

GARCIA: Yes.

JACKSON: And that's a statement in a certain direction. Now people like George are saying we will talk conditionally. But at least you begin to get some movement away from walls toward bridges. Is that a hopeful sign?

GARCIA: I think it's a very hopeful sign. And actually, when you look at the history of the Elian Gonzalez case over the past five months and how the Castro government has reacted to the Cuban American community, you've seen some very big steps that have not been taken in the past 40 years. The first step of that being is that for the first time, the Castro government actually started to make a distinction between the exile community.

Up until last year, we were all Gusanos (ph), people who left Cuba and were not to be trusted. During this Elian Gonzalez case, the Cuban government actually came out and actually started making a distinction between Cuban Americans who were interested in working for the best interests of Cuba and those were interested in harming the interests of Cuba.

JACKSON: You know, it's Easter season. It's resurrection season, new hope. Just maybe, as the scripture suggests, "and they shall be led by little children," just maybe the Elian Gonzalez case could be that light, that bridge to begin to connect Cuba and Cuban Americans again.

GARCIA: Right.

JACKSON: I'm going to come right back with our last session. Thank you very much.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JACKSON: In our final segment with George Fowler of the Cuban American National Foundation and Sean Garcia of the Cuban Committee for Democracy.

George, could one of the unintended consequences of this saga be a new diplomatic initiative toward normalizing Cuban and American ties?

FOWLER: Listen, before we can renew ties to the Castro government, he's got to take some step forward. He needs to stop torturing people and imprisoning people. There's got to be some give and take on his part.

You know, and if there's going to be business with Cuba, let it be with the Cuban people, not with Fidel Castro. There's got to be overtures on his part. We see nothing. We have seen nothing like that in 41 years.

JACKSON: Sean, have you seen any overtures?

GARCIA: I actually do think that this is the first signs of the possibility of renewed cooperation. This is the first case where the U.S. government and the Cuban government have worked together.

At the same time, I do think that if you wait for the Cuban government to take the initiative in renewing relationships between the countries, then that's saying that the leader of the world, the country that has the most power and the ability to initiate initiatives with other countries is waiting for a country of 10 million people to make that initiative.

JACKSON: My experience was the PLO had too much anger to talk with the Israelis. They had too much anger to talk with the PLO. So you needed a powerful, honest broker to connect the two. Would not that be an appropriate role, George, for the U.S. to assume the role to kind of connect the two families that are in such agony after a 41- year battle?

FOWLER: I think we're willing to look at any situation, Jesse. But you know, it's like you telling me, "Can we negotiate a deal with Hitler?" back in the '40s. And the answer is no because the man is not well in the head.

Fidel Castro is an egomaniac. He controls everything. He...

JACKSON: George...

FOWLER: ... (INAUDIBLE). But you've got to listen to that because that's key. You know, if you're trying to do a deal with someone who is not reasonable...

GARCIA: But you're also talking about making a deal when we have all the cards in our hand. We have this country in an economic stranglehold with the U.S. embargo. Even though there are problems in that country, we have the economy weight behind it...

FOWLER: (INAUDIBLE) embargo...

GARCIA: ... We have an economic embargo. The last time you checked, it's called Helms-Burton.

(CROSSTALK)

JACKSON: And George, George, George...

GARCIA: And why do we need that embargo in the first place?

(CROSSTALK)

JACKSON: ... George, that's not the world opinion of Castro, I might add. The fact is that all of our NAFTA partners except us feel that we can, through diplomacy and trade, begin to change the situation. Now the question becomes who will take the initiative to reconnect Cuban and Cuban American families?

When he goes back, you want to have more access to him, more food to him, more medicine, more education, that means a bridge. You want to have less access, that means embargo. So is the law for Elian stronger than the despise and distrust for Castro?

FOWLER: You know, there are going to be now millions of Elians in Cuba who are presently suffering. But more importantly than more food or better food or better medicine, what they need in Cuba is civil rights and the ability to speak freely...

JACKSON: George...

FOWLER: ... really. That's what they really need.

GARCIA: The U.S. needs to...

JACKSON: ... under this exciting -- cut it off right now -- but let me submit to you that we have had an interesting dialogue for the day. But we're beginning to talk. When we talk, we act. When we act, we change things.

We need bridges and not walls. Let's reunite Cuban and Cuban American families. That's the big deal. Maybe that little child will save all of us.

That's all for this week's program. I'll be back next Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. Until then, thanks for watching, and keep hope alive.

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