Two weeks ago, I had occasion to visit Camp Elián in the Little Havana section of Miami, and it didn't taken long to be left with an indelible image.
This was an oversized television studio.
The little bungalow where the world's most famous 6-year-old lived until last Saturday was overpowered by a long row of video and still cameras facing it from the street. What had been a nondescript working-class neighborhood was now a fully functional high-tech set, poised to beam images of Elián González and kin around the globe in an instant.
On this particular day, somber Cuban-Americans were outnumbered by detached media types and tourists, and the sense of indifference in the air suggested that no star sightings were imminent in the Gonzálezes' tiny frontyard. Everyone must have been in production meetings or wardrobe.
It all seemed so staged.
Fast-forward to the past weekend and the government raid and that horrifying photograph and those anguished reactions of stunned family members. It all seemed so unstaged.
But was it really such a shock to the family?
Pardon my cynicism, but I think the González clan was far more prepared for the possibility of a wee-hours raid than anyone is saying. No doubt there was an element of surprise -- the family didn't specifically expect the feds at 5:15 a.m. last Saturday -- but there also seems to have been a level of preparedness more in keeping with a readied television studio set than a sleeping home.
Here's how the Miami Herald described what happened in the seconds after immigration agents began pouring onto the González property:
"Inside the house, family and friends heard the commotion outside and peered out. Someone yelled, 'The feds are out here. The feds are out here....'
"Robert Curbelo Jr., a family friend inside the house, locked the back door. Family spokesman Armando Gutierrez had let in Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz through the front door so he could record the event.
"The agents knocked. Knocked again. No answer. A battering ram took out the front door. Eight agents were suddenly inside.
"'Here they come!' Lazaro (González, Elian's great-uncle/quasi-guardian) yelled from the love seat...."
That's pretty quick thinking, isn't it? With hundreds of agents descending on this little unarmed home, one friend rushes to lock the back door just in time to keep out the feds while another, the spokesman, has the presence of mind to whisk in an AP photographer. Then the star of the show perches on the love seat waiting to deliver his poignant line during the inevitable door breakdown.
So it went, right down to the symbolically delicious detail of Elián's being wrested by agents from the loving embrace of the very fisherman who helped rescue him from the ocean off South Florida last November. The fisherman, Donato Dalrymple, had scooped a sleeping Elián off the couch -- at which point the child was said (by the fisherman) to have started screaming, "Help me. Help me. Que pasa, que pasa?" -- and taken him into a closet to hide.
I'm reminded of that studio feeling again.
Mind you, the fisherman and the spokesman and the family friend weren't the only non-family members in the house. Also there, according to the Herald, were two lawyers who wound up frozen at gunpoint in the dining room; Elián's 5-year-old cousin and his mother; best-actress nominee Marisleysis González (the emotionally brittle 20-year-old cousin dubbed "surrogate mother" in the media); and Lazaro's wife, Angela, who never gets a speaking part.
This was a busy place at such an hour of the morning.
OK, let's sort this out. We know that all-night negotiations are going on with Attorney General Janet Reno and staff by telephone from the office of still another Miami lawyer. So maybe that explains why there are the two attorneys in the dining room at 5:15 a.m. Maybe the family friend is helping negotiate, too.
It's not so clear why another small child and his mother needed to be there at this particular moment -- this is, after all, a tiny house -- but maybe it was a sleepover or something. Or maybe they're negotiating, too.
And the fisherman? Well, who among us didn't have a fisherman hanging around all night at some time in our youth? Besides, fishermen probably make good negotiators.
Whatever. The whole thing has sort of a Cuban-American Addams Family feel about it, and the bizarre wee-hours scene does no more for the Gonzálezes' credibility than its long history of brushes with the law.
Not that credibility matters. From the beginning, this has been all about a boy named Fidel, not a boy named Elián. However well intentioned the Cuban-exile community may be, this horrible tragedy has been exploited for political purposes to the exclusion of the child's best interests.
But once Juan Miguel González arrived in the U.S. to claim his son -- as he had every right to do -- those struggling to keep Elián away from Cuba had pretty well lost their battle. All they had left was a chance to make their point, and it appears now -- much to Reno's vindication -- that they had no intention of surrendering the boy without coercion.
Again, I'm reminded of the studio feeling.
Consider this: If you're the González family and you're going to lose this battle -- if it's inevitable (as it should be) that Elián is going to be handed over to his father at some point in the near future -- getting raided by the feds is as good as it gets.
You've got immigration agents looking like stormtroopers. You've got "the boy and the fisherman" angle. You've got the anguished, screaming stars (Lazaro and Marisleysis) in the front room and all the well-cast extras in the back.
And, of course, you just happen to have a terrific photographer -- one who closed the nominations for next year's news-photo Pulitzer -- recording the horror for the entire world to see. You get to make your point to the world while being martyred as sympathetic victims of jackbooted government thugs.
No wonder these unarmed and defenseless people didn't just open the door when the agents knocked.
Getting raided made much better television than a peaceful changing of the guardians.