MIAMI -- Thousands of protesters ready to block the removal of Elian Gonzalez yesterday afternoon as ordered by Attorney General Janet Reno instead found themselves celebrating yet another delay in the federal government's attempt to reunite the boy with his father.
An appellate court in Atlanta, which has been considering an appeal by the boy's Miami relatives, ordered that Elian remain in the United States while it reviews the case.
Protesters had jammed every street leading to the Miami home of Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, where Elian has lived since he was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day. The 6-year-old was one of three who survived the capsize of a boat carrying Cubans fleeing their country. His mother was one of 11 aboard who drowned.
The demonstrators had gathered in anticipation of a 2 p.m. deadline set by Reno for the Miami family to bring the boy to a local airport where he would begin his journey to be reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. The Miami relatives defied the order and kept Elian at home.
But even as many Cuban-Americans here cheered the delay, anger erupted elsewhere over the 4 1/2-month saga. Through his attorney in Washington, Elian's father denounced the latest delay as well as what he considers the exploitation of the boy by the news media.
Elian's stay in Miami was extended indefinitely by the order from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering Lazaro Gonzalez's appeal of a federal court decision upholding the Immigration and Naturalization Service ruling that Elian be returned to Cuba. Government lawyers have until 9: 30 a.m. today to respond.
It was unclear how long the order would prevent the boy from being removed from Miami, though indications from the Justice Department were that it might be for several days. The order does not necessarily preclude the boy from being sent to his father, who arrived from Cuba last week and is living temporarily in a Cuban diplomat's home in Bethesda.
Still, those who want Elian to remain in the United States declared a win for their side.
"Victory! Victory!" chanted the Little Havana crowd, which seemed to grow increasingly heated as temperatures rose later in the day under gathering clouds.
"Today was the day of miracles," said Margarita Rodriguez, 31. "We were standing here, under the hot sun, and then God gave us shade, and then he gave us time."
The joy came in marked contrast to the gloom that had descended over the crowd as the deadline approached. Although Reno had promised earlier in the day that no federal marshals would arrive to remove the boy from the house, the protesters remained on alert, many ready to throw themselves up as a human shield should anyone try to take Elian.
"My father went to the Bay of Pigs. Now it is my turn to do something," said Orlando de Atienza, 32.
'Let the boy speak'
But instead of the expected showdown, Cuban-American celebrities, politicians, and religious and community leaders stood before a bank of reporters and photographers outside the Gonzalez home. They asked the protesters to remain nonviolent, the government to back off and Juan Miguel Gonzalez to come to Miami to re-unite with his son and the relatives who have been caring for him.
"We don't understand, we want it clarified, why this family which has guarded this boy is being compelled to betray his trust," said singer Gloria Estefan. "Janet Reno told me the father is afraid of this community. He will be safe in Miami. He will be safe anywhere. We understand he is in a very difficult situation."
"Just ask the boy what he wants," said actor Andy Garcia, his voice breaking with emotion. "Let the boy speak."
Within an hour, the fear that Elian would be removed from the home evaporated as word circulated about the appellate court decision.
"The last time I heard, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is the law of this country," crowed Manny Diaz, one of the family's lawyers, after reading the order to the crowd. "We will pursue it, and we will win this appeal."
The crowd immediately shifted into party mode. A truck from a salsa station blared music, and soon drivers in the area began beeping their horns and waving Cuban and American flags.
"I think the whole community was together and that's why we made a victory," said Odalys Navarro, 33.
'I don't want to go back'
In the midst of the celebration, though, questions were raised over an incendiary home video released by the Miami family and aired repeatedly on television stations yesterday. The tape shows Elian in his bedroom at his great-uncle's house, looking into the camera and addressing his father.
"Papa, I don't want to go back to Cuba. If you want, stay," Elian says, wagging his finger, screwing up his face and acting like a child in a bratty mood. "Papa, you saw that old lady who went to the nun's house, she wants to take me back to Cuba. Tell her I don't want to go back to Cuba."
He apparently was referring to Reno, who returned yesterday to Washington, having been defeated for now in her attempt to use her influence in her hometown of Miami to reunite the boy with his father.
In Washington, Juan Miguel Gonzalez has appeared increasingly impatient as he endures delay after delay in retrieving his son. Gonzalez was seen making an obscene gesture to a group of protesters who have been following him around, holding signs and shouting at him to let his son remain in the United States.
"Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Gonzalez alone has the legal and moral right to speak for Elian Gonzalez," his attorney, Gregory Craig, declared. "The news media should know that Mr. Gonzalez has not given his permission or approval for any journalist to interview, film or broadcast his son."
Craig urged Reno to make good on her order that the boy be reunited with his father. "The attorney general must enforce the law," he said.
Reno has not said what she will do next. While Juan Miguel Gonzalez has said that he wants to take his son back to Cuba as soon as possible, there have been reports that he might agree to remain in the United States with the boy pending the outcome of the Miami family's legal action.
The Miami relatives did suffer one setback yesterday -- a Miami-Dade family court rejected Lazaro Gonzalez's attempt to gain legal custody of Elian.
Despite the battle over Elian being waged on so many fronts, Miami officials and activists continued to lobby for their chosen solution.
Mayor Joe Carollo and others have proposed that Elian and both sides of the Gonzalez family be allowed to spend several weeks together in a private compound, without politicians, news media or lawyers.
Under such a scenario, advocates of the plan say, the family might be able to settle the matter without government action. Reno has seemed amenable to letting the family work things out on its own, but such a get-together has yet to be arranged.