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A Times Editorial

Tragedy nears disgrace

From the Miami-Dade mayor who's fanning the flames of violence to Al Gore who's pandering to anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, the furor over Elian Gonzalez is degenerating into a humiliating spectacle.

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000

The prolonged international custody battle over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez has been an ugly spectacle on many levels. Aside from the family tragedy at the heart of this case, nothing has been uglier than the cowardice and cynicism of many politicians who could have helped bring the standoff to a peaceful and just conclusion long before now.

No public official has been more disappointing than Alex Penelas, the ambitious mayor of Miami-Dade County, who is considered the brightest star in Florida's Democratic Party. Penelas rushed to the front of the mob this week, promising to hold President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno responsible for any violence that occurs if immigration officials try to return Elian to his father in Cuba. In case that incitement of mob violence wasn't direct enough, Penelas also said he would not allow his law enforcement officers to help federal authorities remove Elian from his Miami relatives' home. George Wallace couldn't have said it better 40 years ago.

Penelas hardly has been alone in pandering to South Florida's Cuban-American community. Vice President Al Gore joined the crowd Thursday, abandoning the president and Reno and giving his support to legislation that would grant permanent resident status to Elian. Until that convenient change of heart, Gore had avoided advocating any special status for the boy, stressing instead that the case should be decided impartially in the courts. But Gore's focus these days is on the polls, not the law.

Gore now finds himself hiding behind the skirts of both Florida senators. Democrat Bob Graham and Republican Connie Mack have rushed to introduce similar legislation designed to prolong Elian's stay in the United States. And Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush already had seized the opportunistic low ground Gore retreated to on Thursday.

Gore's flip-flop won't be enough to prevent national Republican leaders from using the Elian controversy as a club against Gore in Florida in November. "If Elian gets sent back," Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson said this week, "the Cuban community will remember which party wanted to hand a small child back to Fidel Castro across a barbed-wire fence." And voters in the rest of the country may remember which party used a lost and motherless little boy as a political pawn.

President Clinton, who has no more campaigns to run, is one of the few public officials who has resisted the temptation to encourage the anti-Castro extremists. Wednesday, he gently reminded Penelas and other Miami-Dade officials that they have an obligation to uphold the rule of law.

After 40 years in this country, it's past time for the anti-Castro demagogues -- who aren't always representative of South Florida's Cuban-American community -- to grow up and stop debasing the American values they claim to hold so dear. It would help if our public officials in Florida and Washington acted like grown-ups, too. Everyone should be searching for a resolution of this case that does not compound the tragedy Elian Gonzalez and his family already have experienced. A violent confrontation -- or a failure of federal or local authorities to enforce the law -- would turn a family tragedy into a national disgrace.

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