Elián saga proved early test for Jeb Bush as Florida governor

Elián González is held in a closet by Donato Dalrymple, right, as government officials search the home of Lázaro González for the young boy on April 22, 2000.
Elián González is held in a closet by Donato Dalrymple, right, as government officials search the home of Lázaro González for the young boy on April 22, 2000. AP

Late at night on Good Friday a decade and a half ago, Jeb Bush was glued to his email.

The nation was gripped with the saga of a 6-year-old boy in Miami named Elián González. People like Cindy Kucharski were so upset over Elián’s imminent return to his father in communist Cuba that she sent an email titled, “Pontius Clinton Washes his hands & Leaves Elian Case To Reno,” referring to President Bill Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

“I have a real sense of dread for what this administration will do to this little boy. We need to be prayerful this weekend,” Kucharski wrote.

It was 10:58 p.m. on April 21, 2000. Seven minutes later, the governor of Florida weighed in.

“I don’t believe that the feds will take the child this weekend,” Bush wrote, signing off simply as “Jeb.”

He was wrong. The feds seized Elián shortly after 5 a.m. the next day. Armed with automatic weapons, they took the boy from the Little Havana home where he had been staying with relatives. Bush, who had stayed up emailing until around 3:30 a.m., was stunned.

Fifteen years later, the Elián González case offers a portrait of Jeb Bush — now a likely presidential candidate — managing one of his first crises in office. Barely a year into his first term, Bush was forced to straddle two worlds: his community, full of passionate Cuban exiles refusing to send young Elián back to Fidel Castro’s Communist regime, and the federal government, caught in a diplomatic flap over an international family-custody battle.

Bush understood the heartfelt opposition from exiles but recognized that there was little that could be done legally to keep Elián on U.S. soil. The new governor displayed a careful political touch that kept him in the good graces of Miami Cubans, who to this day speak of Bush as one of their own.

Moderate or conservative?

That’s the moderate Bush some supporters want in the White House. But over the next five years, Bush would take a markedly more polarizing, conservative approach when he pushed the limits of his executive power to try to keep Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged St. Petersburg woman, alive. As with Elián, Bush had no legal authority to step in. Yet he did in the Schiavo case, over and over again, to fight for what he considered an absolute, faith-driven, moral issue.

In Bush’s eyes, the government couldn’t give permission for Schiavo to die. With Elián, things were different. The government could return a little boy to live with his father in Cuba.

During the Elián case, Bush stayed above the fray in Tallahassee, while still closely following developments in Miami. Emails from Bush’s eight years in the Governor’s Mansion show that during the most tense periods of the five-month standoff, Bush received frequent updates from Florida Department of Law Enforcement brass. One was so detailed that it noted what a host had said on a Spanish-language AM radio station. The former governor’s emails were re-released last month and made searchable by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

The emails show that Bush, who famously included his BlackBerry in his official portrait, was unusually engaged with the public, responding quickly and thoughtfully to the many people outside politics who wrote him regularly, often to criticize.

The day after the feds took Elián, Molly Volz of Pensacola accused Bush of playing politics. “If the President was Republican, you most likely would have supported the action.”

“Please do not have one of your aides respond,” she wrote. “No response is better.”

Bush answered himself: “I am saddened by the federal government’s decision to take Elián by force out of his Miami home when there was significant progress being made to reach an accommodation with the father.”

Elián rescued

Elián had been plucked from the Atlantic Ocean on Thanksgiving Day 1999. He was floating on an inner tube after the boat carrying him had capsized, killing his mother and 10 others.

The boy’s father — and the Cuban government — wanted Elián back, and contended that keeping him in the U.S. was tantamount to kidnapping. His Miami relatives argued it was in Elián’s best interest to remain in the U.S., especially after his mother had given her life to get him here. When the U.S. immigration agency ruled Elián could return with his father to Cuba — exercising authority upheld by a federal judge — the Miami relatives refused to turn him over.

Bush tried to stake a middle ground, calling for a custody hearing before a state judge to decide Elián’s future — though the state was legally powerless. Elián’s relatives had no legal standing to ask for such a hearing, after the feds had found the boy’s father to be a fit parent. And state court had no jurisdiction over a federal agency or immigration matters.

The governor readily acknowledged that, even if there had been a hearing, a judge would have likely ruled for Elián’s father.

“All things being equal, the dad would gain custody,” Bush wrote in an email five days before the raid.

His relatively low-key position helped Bush avoid the political fate of some local officials who saw their careers upended by how they handled the ordeal. Miami City Manager Donald Warshaw lost his job in the wake of violent protests. Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas’ popularity in the Democratic Party plunged after he defied the feds on national television. (Penelas then refused to campaign with Vice President Al Gore later that year. George W. Bush won Florida — and therefore the White House — by 537 votes.) Attorney General Reno ran for Florida governor in 2002 and didn’t even secure the Democratic nomination.

“I support your decision to remain an observer in the Elian case,” Trecia C. Benefield wrote to Bush the day before the raid in an email titled “I support you!” “Thank you for not turning this into a political grand stand.”

When he responded to emails from people on both sides of the Elián case, Jeb Bush was unafraid to offer his opinion and push back, especially when writers bashed hard-line Miami Cubans. The day after the raid, Bush received an email titled “Cuban Anarchy” from Fred Knight and his wife in Sarasota, who implored, “Please don’t continue to pander to these people just for votes.”

In his answer, Bush said he “respectfully” disagreed.

“I am from Miami and I have worked and lived with Cuban Americans. They are, in their great majority, god fearing, patriotic Americans who I would imagine share your values,” he wrote. “Please don’t fall prey to the national media stereotype of this group since it is not monolithic.”

Bush ended the email with a polite, “Again, I appreciate your writing and I hope you have a joyous Easter.”

Blaming Clinton

Repeatedly, the Republican governor blamed the Democratic president’s administration for politicizing the case.

“I think we should give Elian a custody hearing to determine what is in his best interests,” Bush wrote to Glenn Langford of Indiantown on April 1. “Everything else is posturing and politics (a trademark of the Clinton administration).”

“Had this matter been dealt with as a custody case, my guess is that Elian would be back with his dad a while back,” Bush wrote to George Cavros on April 26. “The Clinton administration has politicized this issue, not the advocates of a custody hearing.”

Though some in the public urged the governor to dive into the Elián case, Bush didn’t telephone Clinton until the night before the raid, on Good Friday. After the call, Bush was optimistic that a settlement would soon be reached with Elián’s relatives, and the boy would be peacefully reunited with his father.

Instead, then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder phoned Bush at 5 a.m. Saturday saying federal agents were on standby to seize Elián. Twenty minutes later, Holder called back to say Elián was in government custody. Bush, feeling misled about the negotiations, then publicly criticized the feds for treating Elián’s retrieval like a “hostage situation.”

Even with Elián gone, Bush continued to keep close tabs on unrest in Miami. He visited the city to urge calm before street protests. He privately advised Mayor Joe Carollo against firing the city manager fearing further upheaval, a suggestion Carollo ignored. Warshaw, the manager, had not informed elected leaders in advance of the federal raid, though the police department knew about it. Some people also accused police of responding too harshly to the demonstrations.

“I am doing well trying to keep all the balls in the air at once,” Bush wrote April 29 when Kucharski wrote back to ask how he was doing. “I went down to Miami on Thursday and it was very ugly. The tension and pain is intense. I am very worried about today.”

Elián would surface again in Bush’s emails five years later — and not because of anything having to do with the boy himself.

Schiavo case

Terri Schiavo was on life support in St. Petersburg. Her husband wanted to let her die. Her parents didn’t. Bush, a devout Catholic, tried to put Schiavo under the custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families, a move a judge rejected.

After Schiavo’s feeding tube had been removed, emails poured into Bush’s inbox imploring him to take precisely the type of action he had opposed for Elián.

“Elian Gonzalez was swept out of a loving home and taken back to Cuba a la Janet Reno. Why can’t the State of Florida take her out of that hospice and place her in a safe, stable and living environment?” Marianne R. Swain of Lighthouse Point wrote a week before Schiavo died.

Bush, usually so quick to answer, didn’t respond.

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