The End Of Innocence

It was way past a 6-year-old boy's normal bedtime, but for Elián González, nothing is normal. Deep into the night, sometime between 11 p.m. on Wednesday and 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, little Elián sat on his bed, peered into the home video camera and emphatically declared, "Papa, I don't want to go to Cuba." He seemed almost indifferent whether his father stayed with him in the United States or returned home. "If you want, stay here," Elián addressed his father, via video. But he was adamant about his own plans. "I'm not going to Cuba," he declared. He said it again, then again, waving his index finger like a tiny but proud orator.

The video was shot by Elián's Miami relatives, probably by his great-uncles Lázaro and Delfín. It was furnished to a Spanish-language TV station to show, in the family's view, Elián's true feelings, in his own words. What the video may have revealed instead was something sad--a brave little boy, caught in a cruel custody battle, flying too high in a kind of fantasy world before a long hard fall back to reality.

Elián González has suffered through the horror of losing his mother at sea, and this week he may have to go through the added trauma of being wrenched from the family that has cared for him ever since he was found floating in an inner tube off the Florida coast last November. If Attorney General Janet Reno and Elián's Miami relatives and their squadron of lawyers cannot work out a peaceful turnover, Elián may be dragged through a gantlet of rioters on the way to reunion with his father.

As the crowds chant and the lawyers wrangle, the boy's father, Juan Miguel González, is sitting in the home of a Cuban diplomat in Bethesda, Md., grimly watching the TV news. He has talked to his son only twice. Given the Miami phone number of the boy's great-uncle Lázaro when he arrived in the United States two weeks ago, the father immediately began dialing every five or 10 minutes, but he was unable to get through. He finally reached the boy that evening. Elián had not been told his father was in the United States. The exchange was emotional and warm, but there has been only one other conversation with his son since then. Sometimes the father cannot get through, or one of the great-uncles interrupts. The boy is never alone; Juan Miguel can always hear conversation and the sound of the TV in the background. If the Feds are forced to come and take Elián, the father wants the boy to have a cell phone to call his father right away. But now Juan Miguel is worried about how the boy will react. His eyes filling, he told his lawyer, Greg Craig, "I'm not sure what he'll say to me." Last week, as González was sitting in Craig's law office in downtown Washington, the tape of his son's video was playing over and over on cable-TV news. González leaned forward and put his fingers to the bridge of his nose and began to tear up. "Why do they keep running this?" he asked Craig.

He has reason to be worried. Some mental-health professionals were chilled by the boy's performance on the videotape. In contentious custody battles after a divorce, one parent--typically, the mother--may try to turn the child against the other parent. "One parent may keep the child loyal by finding ways to make the child fear the other parent," says Dr. Janice Abarbanel, a Washington, D.C., psychologist. The child, especially a small child still dependent on the mother, will play along to please the mother. In particularly rough cases, children have been known to make up charges of sexual abuse against their fathers.

Elián is a prime candidate for what psychologists call the "parental-alienation syndrome." A child who loses a parent needs to deeply grieve. But it appears that Elián has not been allowed to. He told Diane Sawyer on ABC that he believes his mother merely lost her memory, and that she is still alive somewhere. He has been taken to Disney World and hugged by Mickey Mouse. Worshipful supporters heap toys on him and compare him to Jesus Christ. He may truly be an unusually strong and cheerful boy. Or he may be protecting himself with fantasies that cannot last. Having lost one mother, he is understandably afraid of losing another--his affectionate and emotional cousin Marisleysis, who has doted on him for months. "From seeing the video, it looks like Elián is fearful of losing the family who's been so helpful to him at a time of immediate trauma and loss," says Dr. Linda Rubinowitz, clinical psychologist at Northwestern University.

There is no evidence that Elián has anything to fear from his father. According to his lawyer Greg Craig, Juan Miguel worries that his son is, in effect, being brainwashed. "He's not the son he knew five months ago. That boy had no fears. He was never afraid of Cuba, never afraid of his father. What has been done to the boy by these relatives is unspeakable," Craig told NEWSWEEK.

Just exactly what has been done is not clear. As recently as March 1, Marisleysis testified about Juan Miguel at a Senate hearing, "I know for a fact that he is a good father and he loves his son." But lately, the Miami relatives and their spokesmen have been painting Juan Miguel as a wife-beater and an abusive father. "Elián is scared to go with his father because his father beat him up," says Jose Garcia Pedrosa, one of the family lawyers. In their pleas for custody in state court, the family has filed sealed affidavits alleging abuse of the mother by Juan Miguel. A Justice Department official dismissed the allegations as "nothing but atmospherics." Craig said the charges against Juan Miguel were "not true" and "just awful." The father told Craig that he "never needed to discipline" his son. Juan Miguel described his son to Craig as "a good boy, a courteous boy."

The question is whether the Miami family's smear campaign is affecting Elián. Most professionals believe that the boy needs a careful, calm transition from his Miami family back to his father. Nothing about the events of last week suggests he will get it. As the Miami family and Reno fruitlessly negotiated, the scene outside the family's bungalow in Little Havana was a circus. Rumors of a snatch operation by the Feds stoked the crowd, which chanted "Guerra! Guerra!" ("War! War!"). As women in black dresses made prayer circles, burly men formed flying squads to crash the barricades. Pop diva Gloria Estefan held forth for the cameras, and movie star Andy Garcia asked to have his picture taken with the child. A 2 p.m. Thursday deadline for turning over the child came and went, and the legal wrangling resumed. A court of appeals granted a temporary injunction against the Feds' removing Elián. "Victory! Victory!" cried the mob, but the decision was more of a procedural wrinkle. The Justice Department assured the courts that Juan Miguel would not take Elián back to Cuba while the Miami family appeals the decision to restore custody of Elián to Juan Miguel. The appeals court was expected to lift the injunction over the weekend.

Reno does not want to start a riot, but she is under pressure from the White House to bring the defiant spectacle to an end. "The rule of law has got to be upheld," President Clinton told reporters, in a gentle nudge at Reno. Reno must be mindful of some incendiary anniversaries: the Bay of Pigs on Monday, Waco on Wednesday, Columbine on Thursday. Still, the Feds are set to move as soon as they can find a relatively quiet moment when the crowds are not surging around Lázaro's bungalow in Little Havana. Then begins the slower and harder work of making Elián a happy, normal boy. "Juan Miguel is a good father and a great guy," says Craig. He will need to be. If Elián's case follows the pattern of so many rough custody battles, when the fighting over the child dies down, the child's depression is just beginning.