Six-year-olds are natural charmers, eager to please, brave, playful and about as grounded as soap bubbles. Now that Elian Gonzalez has made parents of us all, it was especially gruesome to watch his fate float by last week, in real time and on video, as the adults in his life prepared to tear him in two.
On the one hand, the more familiar he becomes to us with each passing slide down that swing set, the harder it is to imagine waving him onto the plane bound for Havana. On the other, there was a nasty sense last week that what his Miami relatives warned would happen to him in Cuba was already happening to him here. Was that really his idea to sit on a bed, wave his finger at his father and defy him--the father who must, surely, have played some role in making him the delightful kid everyone says he is? "Papa," he said, "I do not want to go to Cuba. If you want to, stay here. I am not going to Cuba." By the time his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez had watched it for the fourth or fifth time in his lawyer's office Thursday morning, he put his head down, his hands on the bridge of his nose, and cried. "Can we make them stop showing it?"
Attorney General Janet Reno, who from the start has been running this show and last week moved to center stage, seemed to be torn as well, between her promise to enforce the law and her vow to do it gently, in a way that will not break this kid into pieces or set Miami on fire. There is the law, and then there is the law of the street. "They will have to take this child by force," declared Great-Uncle Lazaro Gonzalez. Even as the Miami Cubans mocked Reno, called her a coward, practically dared her to come in and seize Elian, even as her Washington critics privately sneered that she was just a dithering social worker in over her head, she kept chanting her promise of a fair and appropriate response and patiently stood by as the case ground up both wings of the family in legal maneuvering that kept Elian's fate in limbo a few days longer.
The week began with at least a promise of an ending. Once Juan Miguel, after five long months, finally came to the U.S. to claim his son, Reno had assured him that the reunion would happen quickly and on the government's terms. But her legal power to make that happen, by force if needed, was hostage to her fear of a scene too ugly to imagine, of armed marshals and enraged crowds and a desperate child in the middle. Wouldn't it be nice if all the family could just sit down and work this out?
That would require a profound change of heart from Lazaro, a semi-employed mechanic with two drunk-driving convictions who had redeemed himself in the Cuban-exile community by his fight for custody of Elian. Now people called him a hero, a patriot. They leaned over the chain-link fence of his home just to touch his shirt. But Lazaro's older brother Manuel, cast out as family patriarch for his belief that Elian should be with his father, had a sense that perhaps even Lazaro was wavering. Manuel lost a son to cancer nine years ago. "Hermano," Manuel said in a phone call last week, "you and I were raised to believe in something very important--no one has the right to take a father's child from him, except God."