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Jewish World Review April 28, 2000 /23 Nissan, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Reno's force aids Clinton, not Elian -- ATTORNEY GENERAL JANET RENO, backed by President Clinton, ordered up a commando raid to deliver little Elian Gonzalez over to his father. Surely there was a better way.

Instead of adding to the child's already traumatic experience, Clinton could have personally intervened to reunite the boy's family while the courts worked out the issues of whom he lives with -- and where.

Reno, with Clinton's backing, stubbornly decided that the boy belonged with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, and sent armed U.S. agents to grab him in a 5 a.m. raid on Saturday, clearly terrifying the child.

The raid was a tactical success in that no one was seriously hurt. Probably it was a political success in that most Americans favor custody for the father. But no one should claim that it was done for the benefit of little Elian.

The child's interests would have been served by a shared-custody arrangement, preferably in Miami. And President Clinton could have personally called the parties to effect it.

No party could have refused a reasonable presidential request. If anyone did, they would be yielding valuable moral and political high ground to the other side.

Would it have been unpresidential for Clinton to get involved in the nitty-gritty of an immigration/custody case? Not when it had become a national spectacle. Clinton regularly visits natural disaster sites. This was a man-made disaster.

In fact, there is reason to think that the policy was made by Clinton himself, even though, mainly, he kept public distance from the Elian issue and left the dirty work to Reno.

According to former White House Cuba adviser Richard Nuccio, administration policy switched decisively after Dec. 5 last year, when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro threatened to unleash boatloads of refugees unless Elian was returned to Cuba within 72 hours.

Before that, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had deposited the child in the care of Elian's uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, and asserted that the issue of legal custody could be decided by Florida state courts, as Vice President Al Gore also has recommended.

After Castro's threat, however, the State Department reversed the INS ruling and the administration began moving to turn the child over to his father in Cuba.

According to Nuccio, who worked in the White House from 1995 to 1996, this follows a familiar pattern: "Whenever Castro says `Jump,' Clinton asks,`How high?'"

Clinton was burned badly by Cubans loosed by Castro in the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Their rioting at an Arkansas detention facility contributed to his defeat for re-election after one term as governor.

Then in August 1994, Nuccio recalled, Castro let loose another mass exodus of refugees amid a period of economic crisis in Cuba, with 35,000 persons reaching Florida, much to the dismay of then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, D, who was up for re-election.

Clinton, who Nuccio says showed little interest in foreign policy, suddenly became attentive to Cuba and ordered negotiations leading to an agreement allowing 20,000 refugees a year into the United States in return for a Cuban clampdown on boat departures.

Boats began departing again in May 1995, Nuccio said. The United States picked up 15,000 refugees and held them at its base in Guantanamo Bay, then reached an agreement with Castro to admit the 15,000 to the United States as long as Castro would take back new refugees picked up by U.S. warships.

Nuccio thinks it was Castro's new threat of an invasion of boat people that led the Clinton administration to press for Elian Gonzalez's return to Cuba.

Press reports indicate that Castro has ordered a Young Communist League facility to be readied for Elian, where undoubtedly he will be re-educated after his exposure to America.

Whether Elian should be returned ought be decided by the courts, not the INS, Janet Reno or Clinton. U.S. law normally awards custody to parents, but a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals just indicated that children may have the right to asylum even if it is opposed by a parent.

But now that Elian is in his father's custody, the chances are he will drop the claim for asylum he made while in Miami and the father will be able to take him back to Cuba.

This seems to be the reason that Reno and Clinton were so eager to get the child back into his father's custody -- even to the extent of using force. It was Clinton's interest that was served, not Elian's.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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