FLASHBACK: Media Seized on Elián Saga to Vilify Anti-Communists

April 21st, 2024 10:11 AM

Twenty-four years ago tomorrow (April 22, 2000), Attorney General Janet Reno ordered gun-toting immigration officers to snatch six-year-old Elián Gonzalez from his Miami home in preparation for his return to communist Cuba after a lengthy diplomatic dispute.

Five months earlier, Elián was brought by his mother and her boyfriend in their attempt to flee Cuba by sea, hoping for a new life in the United States. Their boat lost power and sank, and Elián’s mother drowned along with most of the other passengers. The U.S. Coast Guard  brought him to Florida after he was found floating in an inner tube on November 25, 1999; the youngster was then sent to live with relatives in Miami, just as he would have if his mother had successfully completed her escape.

From the beginning, liberal journalists insisted there was nothing superior about living in the United States vs. the communist dictatorship in Cuba. On his December 6, 1999 Upfront program, for example, CNBC’s Geraldo Rivera argued the only problem was that Castro’s tyranny was “unpopular” with Americans. “You can hate Castro and hate his government,” Rivera lobbied, but then “every time you have an unpopular government that we object to, children can be snatched from that country....It’s just unconscionable....It’s politics, it stinks.”

During ABC’s round-the-clock New Year’s coverage on December 31, 1999, correspondent Cynthia McFadden in Havana related how in a visit to a Cuban school, the children “talked about... their fear of the United States... because it was a place where they kidnap children — a direct reference, of course to Elián Gonzalez.” Of course, there was no hint that the children McFadden spoke with were merely repeating the propaganda line fed to them by the government.

By April, it was obvious that the Clinton administration was going to find a way to send Elián back to the nation his mother fled. Journalists claimed that life in Castro’s Cuba might be better than life in America. “Elián might expect a nurturing life in Cuba, sheltered from the crime and social breakdown that would be part of his upbringing in Miami,” Newsweek’s Brook Larmer and John Leland argued in their magazine’s April 17, 2000 issue. “The boy will nestle again in a more peaceable society that treasures its children.”

“To be a poor child in Cuba may in many instances be better than being a poor child in Miami, and I’m not going to condemn their lifestyle so gratuitously,” their Newsweek colleague Eleanor Clift pronounced on the April 8 McLaughlin Group.

Pressed, Clift later doubled down, telling FNC’s Bill O’Reilly on May 1: “I can understand why a rational, loving father can believe that his child will be protected in a state where he doesn’t have to worry about going to school and being shot at, where drugs are not a big problem, where he has access to free medical care and where the literacy rate, I believe, is higher than this country’s.”

In an April 20 interview with Vice President Al Gore’s wife, Tipper, CNN host Larry King echoed the Castro regime’s anti-American talking points: “One of the things that Elián Gonzalez’s father said, that I guess would be hard to argue with, that his boy’s safer in a school in Havana than in a school in Miami. He would not be shot in a school in Havana. Good point?”

To her credit, Tipper Gore disagreed: “Well, I think that’s a, that’s a bit of a harsh point....”

As they peddled the idea that life under communism was grand, journalists also took nasty swipes at the anti-communist Cuban community in Miami. “Some suggested over the weekend that it’s wrong to expect Elián Gonzalez to live in a place that tolerates no dissent or freedom of political expression. They were talking about Miami....Another writer this weekend called it ‘an out of control banana republic within America,’” NBC’s Katie Couric jabbed as she opened the April 3 Today.

“In Miami, it’s impossible to overestimate how everything here is colored by a hatred of communism and Fidel Castro,” ABC’s John Quinones relayed the next day on World News Tonight. “It’s a community with very little tolerance for those who might disagree.”

“The ‘banana republic’ label sticking to Miami in the final throes of the Elián Gonzalez crisis is a source of snide humor for most Americans. But many younger Cuban-Americans are getting tired of the hard-line anti-Castro operatives who have helped manufacture that stereotype,” Time’s Tim Padgett echoed in his magazine’s April 17 edition.

The New York Times suggested it was old-fashioned to have a negative opinion of communist dictatorships. “Communism Still Looms as Evil to Miami Cubans,” the newspaper screamed in an April 11 headline.

On CBS’s The Early Show (April 14) , co-host Bryant Gumbel offered this slanted question to his network’s Cuba expert, Pamela Falk: “Cuban-Americans, Ms. Falk, have been quick to point fingers at Castro for exploiting the little boy. Are their actions any less reprehensible?

Then on the Saturday before Easter, immigration officers raided the home of Elián’s Miami relatives to begin the process of returning the child to Cuba. Anchoring live coverage that morning (April 22), CBS anchor Dan Rather praised Janet Reno for ordering the assault: “In the end it worked. The child was gotten out safely.”

Rather also took the opportunity to vouch for the Cuban dictator’s good intentions: “There is no question that Castro feels a very deep and abiding connection to those Cubans who are still in Cuba....There’s little doubt in my mind that Fidel Castro was sincere when he said, ‘listen, we really want this child back here.’”

The heavy-handedness of the raid, typified by the picture of a fearful Elián being confronted by an armed immigration officer, was actually saluted by some in the press. “I gotta confess, that now-famous picture of a U.S. marshal in Miami pointing an automatic weapon toward Donato Dalrymple [the man holding Elián in the picture] and ordering him in the name of the U.S. government to turn over Elián Gonzalez warmed my heart,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman cheered in his April 25 column headlined “Reno for President.”

According to Time’s Michael Duffy, the only valid criticism of Attorney General Janet Reno is that she waited too long to send in the soldiers. “I think any raid where no shots are fired and no one is hurt is a success,” Duffy affirmed on the April 28 edition of PBS’s Washington Week in Review. “I think where Reno is to blame is not that she should have talked longer or kept the negotiations going, but that she should have cut them off much sooner....She just should have stopped it earlier.”

Meanwhile, NBC’s Avila continued to reject the idea that Cuba was oppressed by communism. “The one thing that I’ve learned about Cubans in the many times that I have visited here in the last few years, is that it is mostly a nationalistic country, not primarily a communist country,” he naively insisted on MSNBC’s Imus in the Morning four days after the raid (April 26).

After two months living with his father as court challenges concluded, Elian and his father returned to Cuba in late June, 2000. The media continued to present the communist indoctrination that awaited him as normal. “The school system in Cuba teaches that communism is the way to succeed in life and it is the best system. Is that deprogramming or is that national heritage?” NBC’s Jim Avila wondered on CNBC’s Upfront Tonight on June 27.

“Elián will almost certainly rejoin the Pioneers as almost all Cuban children do. It’s very much like the Cub Scouts, camping trips and all, but with a socialist flavor and a revolutionary spin,” NBC’s Keith Morrison exclaimed on the June 28 Dateline.

All of that “education” has certainly had an impact: In March 2023, Elián Gonzalez was “elected” to Cuban National Assembly — which means he was selected by the communist party to run unopposed in his district. “At 29, he is a show pony for Cuba, just as many exiles feared,” the Miami Herald noted in a March 27 editorial. “The fight to claim Elián Gonzalez and give him a life in America was the last great battle between Castro, U.S. ‘imperialism’ and Miami exiles. And the dictator won.”

With a lot of help from a compliant news media.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.