With Elian case, history's view of Reno may shift

Jose Basulto is no cream puff in the Cuban-exile community. The leader of the Brothers to the Rescue organization strongly advocates keeping Elian Gonzalez in the United States.

But that wasn't always his position.

"Elian could have gone back to Cuba in the first few days," he says, if Cuba President Fidel Castro and the Clinton administration had not each moved to use the case for their own political gain.

Hindsight, the saying goes, is always 20/20, and many analysts in Miami and Washington now claim to see clearly how Attorney General Janet Reno should have handled Elian's case differently - especially early on.

While the weeks of standoff in Miami's Little Havana might well have been averted, the outcome - a successful reunion of father with son - may change history's assessment of one of America's most visible - and embattled - attorney generals.

"You have to have great sympathy for her in this episode," says Dale Schwartz, an Atlanta attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "I believe she honestly and sincerely wants to do the right thing."

Indeed, as the standoff in Little Havana ended over the weekend, polls show as many as 66 percent of Americans thought the raid was justified.

Still, many observers agree that if Reno had treated Elian's case like that of any other foreign child arriving in the US without a parent, the international custody dispute could have been averted altogether.

"The real lesson here is you have to make a good decision, and you have to make it early. She didn't do that," says Bruce Rogow, a constitutional-law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Critics point out it was Reno who decided to turn over the boy to Lazaro Gonzalez and who suggested to the Miami relatives that they file for custody of the boy in family court. And it was Reno who encouraged Lazaro to file suit in federal court to challenge her eventual determination that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, had exclusive authority to determine whether his six-year-old son would seek political asylum in the US or return to Cuba.

Finally it fell to Reno, who worked 14-hour days on the case, to act resolutely, sending an armed team to the Gonzalez home to retrieve Elian.

"It's embarrassing the way the rule of law is being flaunted," said a federal appeals-court official on the eve of the raid. "[Lazaro] should be held in contempt."

The impasse over Elian presented Reno with one of the biggest challenges of her long career in public service. Others include riots in Miami, during her tenure as a Florida state attorney, over her office's failure to convict police officers in a racially charged case, and her decision to end a standoff in Waco, Texas, that resulted in the deaths of some 80 Branch Davidian followers and their children.

Some analysts suggest that since the Waco tragedy, caution and deliberation have become deeply ingrained in the attorney general.

Others suggest she approached the showdown over Elian the way an elected state attorney would, seeking to negotiate a compromise that preserves the public safety and allows everyone to save face.

While Reno's judgment had been increasingly questioned by vocal critics and a Washington whispering campaign, not everyone believes she mishandled the case. From the beginning, many incremental decisions that led to the standoff were made in good faith, some say.

"I really don't understand the impetus behind the back-biting," says Viet Dihn, a Georgetown University law professor who, in 1978, escaped Vietnam. "I do not see from the US perspective anyone who has a specific interest in a non-negotiated decision in this."

But most agree that the passage of time helped leaders in the Cuban-exile community rally public support and assemble a skilled legal team to try to keep the child in Miami. Within a very short time, Elian became a powerful symbol of every Cuban exile's struggle for freedom.

Today, Reno is set to appear before a group of children at the White House Easter Egg Roll, where she'll read "Voyage to the Bunny Planet."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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