The Magazine

Miami Virtue

The citizens of Miami are indignant, determined -- and right

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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Elian Gonzalez's house may be the most famous landmark in Miami these days. Every cab driver knows how to get there. Satellite trucks line the street for blocks in both directions. There is nothing remarkable about the house itself. Like most in Little Havana, it is small and stucco and surrounded by a metal fence. There are Christmas lights hanging from the rain gutter, and two enormous flags, Cuban and American, fluttering on the lawn. Bright colors are a theme in the neighborhood. Though the Gonzalez house is painted a fairly conventional shade of white, other homes on the street span the full supermarket spectrum: mustard yellow, tangerine orange, grapefruit pink, mint-jelly green.

More than 100 members of the news media sit beneath tents across the street staring at the house all day long. Small groups of Cuban men enter, exit, and take no questions. Spokesmen emerge for periodic briefings. Once or twice a day, Elian himself may come out to play on the yellow slide in his front yard. And that's it. There isn't, in other words, a lot going on at Elian's house.

Things get a bit more exciting one morning when a female onlooker in her twenties is overcome by the heat. Friends help her into a chair, while someone calls the fire department. Paramedics arrive, confirm she will be fine, then leave. As an EMT talks to the woman, a network soundman dangles a boom mike overhead to capture the exchange. No fewer than seven cameramen crowd in to film it. The press horde is getting desperate for news.

The public, meanwhile, continues to show up at the house. Tourists come to have their pictures taken in front of the police barricades. A group of middle-aged women assembles every morning to chat and smoke under an umbrella. Vendors hawk T-shirts, Cheetos, and cold drinks. A man walks through the crowd selling chewing gum. A couple of neighborhood oddballs shuffle back and forth talking to themselves. A steady stream of protesters arrive with homemade signs on sticks. Many of the signs make reference to God.

From the beginning, there has been a mystical subplot to the Elian Gonzalez story. Shortly after he was pulled from the ocean last November, the boy told rescuers about a group of dolphins that had followed him as he floated alone in his inner tube. Many supporters came to believe that the dolphins were guardian angels, sent by God not simply to protect the boy's life, but as a sign of the boy's destiny as the redeemer of Cuba. Castro, they said, knew of Elian's power and feared him. Rumors circulated that, once Elian was returned to Cuba, Castro would sacrifice him to the pagan gods of Santeria.

Elian's relatives in Miami did little to dispel such talk. Late last month, the family announced that an image of the Virgin Mary had appeared on a mirror in Elian's bedroom. A few days before, employees at a nearby bank had discovered what they believed was an apparition of the Virgin, visible to some in a streak on the building's front window. A large shrine of candles, flowers, and petitions soon grew at the bank's entryway. Both events were widely taken as evidence that God was using Elian for His own larger purposes.

For believing Christians in Miami, it is not a stretch to see the fight over where Elian should live as a fairly straightforward battle between good and evil. There is no freedom of worship in Cuba. The Communist regime is actively hostile to independent churches and to religious faith in general. Elian's return to Cuba would at the very least constitute a plunge back into state-encouraged atheism. "I don't believe in God," Elian's maternal grandmother, Raquel Rodriguez, announced in February on Cuban television, thereby confirming the worst fears of religious exiles. "To hell with God!" (During the same program, Elian's paternal grandmother, Mariela Quintana, made what still ranks as the strangest statement of the whole saga. "I took out his tongue and I bit it," Quintana said, explaining how she had greeted her grandson during her recent trip to the United States. "I unzipped his fly to see if it's grown.")

By the end of last week, there was not yet a cult of Elian, but it was becoming easier to imagine one developing. On the night of the Little Havana prayer rally, a placard was raised outside of the Gonzalez house: "Elian is the Child King," it said in Spanish. Another sign was more explicit: "Elian is Christ." If the local Catholic authorities were offended by such obviously blasphemous sentiments, none said so officially. One Dade County priest, the Rev. Gustavo Miyares, told the Miami Herald that in his opinion, "it is not so unusual that some people in Miami are seeing [Elian] as the new Christ."

Outside the Gonzalez house on Thursday afternoon, Ramon Saul Sanchez clearly does not have religion on his mind. There have been a number of developments in the Elian case over the past 12 hours, and for the moment, any federal attempt to take the boy from his relatives' house has been postponed until next week. Whether because he doesn't trust the government or because he cannot decelerate from the intensity of the day before, Sanchez is all but ignoring the news. He has gathered the 40 or so onlookers at the scene and is teaching them techniques of civil disobedience.

Sanchez begins with a pep talk. "We are the ones who will protect Elian's rights," he says. "If the U.S. government doesn't give us an option, we will take action." He is speaking softly, but his new students respond as if he has been screaming. "Cuba libre!" they shout, "Cuba libre!"

Within minutes Sanchez has assembled the small crowd into an orderly line. They link arms, forming a human chain. "Uno, dos, tres," the chain recites, marching loudly in place. Then without warning, as a group, they lunge forward. They advance only a few feet, but the effect is jolting. The country fair atmosphere outside Elian's house has vanished. The Juicy Fruit vendor, the shuffling oddballs, the chatting middle-aged women -- suddenly they don't seem like harmlessly charming characters. They seem formidable, defenders of a boy's freedom, resisters against injustice perpetrated by their own government.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.