Cashing In On Little Elián

There was the planning team, the intelligence team, the surveillance team, the break-down-the-door team, the snatch team, the perimeter-security team, the neutralize-the-neighbors team, the air wing and the Navy (a fast boat, in case the helicopter couldn't take off). All in all, the Feds prepared to pick up 6-year-old Elián González the way armies prepare for war. Judging from the vituperative postraid response of GOP lawmakers last week, the onslaught by more than 100 Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, several armed with automatic weapons, added up to overkill. House Whip Tom DeLay excoriated "jack-booted thugs," while New York mayor and Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani inveighed against "storm troopers."

Yet when the pollsters weighed in, the public turned out to take a different view. Most approved of the raid to return Elián to his father, and many people made clear that they were tired of the whole melodrama. On Capitol Hill, Republicans scheduled, then postponed, congressional hearings. That did not necessarily mean, however, that the exploitation of Elián was winding down. The Feds' seizure of the boy was roiling politics from Miami to Washington, and the Internet auction service, eBay, was auctioning off Elián curios. "100 Percent Genuine Raft Used by Elián!!!" declared a seller who claimed to have bought the boy's inner tube from a government warehouse. Also for sale: a page of a coloring book titled "Lunch for a Squirrel," purportedly colored by Elián, and a jar of air supposedly containing smells from Elián's neighborhood (cigar smoke, tear gas).

The raid's critics were quick to use the famous photo of Elián cowering in the closet. Grover Norquist, who runs an anti-Big Government organization called Americans for Tax Reform, e-mailed it to 1,000 conservative activists with the caption, "Your tax dollars at work." Still, many Americans were put off by the over-the-top public-relations campaign of Elián's Miami relatives and their entourage. A devastating profile of the fisherman who rescued Elián, Donato Dalrymple, in The Washington Post portrayed him enjoying his celebrity a little too much (he had just bought a safari jacket from Banana Republic to appear on "Geraldo") and disclosed that he wasn't really a fisherman at all, but a housecleaner. He did not jump in the ocean to save Elián; his cousin, Sam Ciancio, did. Ciancio dismissed Dalrymple as "a phony, a liar, a Kato Kaelin figure."

In briefings with reporters, federal officials involved in the raid made a fairly convincing case for approaching the González home with a surfeit of caution. They had learned that Elián was protected by five bodyguards, four with licenses to carry concealed weapons. A self-styled militia of 15 to 20 men patrolled outside the house, bivouacking in two tents in a neighbor's yard. At least seven of the guards had criminal records for armed robbery or weapons violations. In the neighborhood, the Feds even spotted five members of a paramilitary group called Alpha 66, which had shot up a hotel in Cuba in 1995.

In Miami, the city government split apart in the aftermath of the raid. Mayor Joe Carollo fired the city manager, Donald Warshaw, who had failed to tip him off about the federal raid. Warshaw had been given about an hour's notice by the Justice Department but feared that Carollo might warn the González family. The well-regarded chief of police, William O'Brien, quit, denouncing Carollo as "divisive and destructive."

The only oasis of calm seemed to be at Wye River Conference Center, the leafy retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore where Elián is living with his father, stepmother, baby half brother and playmates. (Four of his classmates from Cuba were flown in for a couple of weeks.) The father's PR-sensitive lawyer, Gregory Craig, brought in a photographer at the weekend. The photos showed Elián happily hugging his father.

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