Elian Gonzalez comes to the ‘hood

RADAR – Remember Elian Gonzalez? He was the kid at the center of an international controversy in November of 1999 when he was found floating off the Florida coast in an inner tube, and eventually taken from the custody of relatives in Miami only to be returned to his father in his homeland of Cuba in April of 2000.

A new picture released by Cuban officials [shows] Elian, now 16, clad in an olive-green military school uniform attending a Young Communist Union congress in Havana last weekend.

Since Elian was returned, his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a one-time restaurant employee, was elected to Cuba’s parliament. Elian remains a popular political symbol in the Communist land, where his December 7 birthday is celebrated with annual parades

SAM SMITH, 2000 – Early in the Elian caper, your editor was asked whether he and his wife would be willing to rent their house to provide shelter for the Cuban tike and as many of his nuclear family, classmates, physicians and so forth as could squeeze in. My keen journalistic nose sniffed a possible story and besides the suggested rent intrigued me.

But I had married the virtue, good sense, and neighborly consideration that I lacked and so the notion was soon deflated. I did, however, suggest to my cut-out that Elian consider Rosedale, a nearby estate owned by Youth for Understanding. It was, I suggested, ideal for the purpose since it was probably already well wired to the Central Intelligence Agency.

In Washington, you develop a sense for such things. In individuals it is suggested by a certain vague and antiseptic charm, in organizations by a certain vague and antiseptic languor about matters of normal concern, such as public relations and fund-raising. Youth for Understanding, a well-endowed student exchange program, was started in the early 1950s during a time when the agency was being especially solicitous towards the young, co-opting the National Student Association, dragooning Europe-bound Ivy Leaguers and so forth. Among the rogue influences it presumably wished to counter was that of the Experiment in International Living, a progressive exchange program favored by students not all that interested in joining the establishment. YFU became an establishment alternative to the experiment.

If you go to the Youth for Understanding web site today you will find a list of corporate sponsors, a mission statement, and information for students and host families. Absent, however, is any indication of what this group really is and who runs it. Trustees and staff, for example, are not listed.

So why would your editor, of all people, propose such a locale? The story goes back 25 years when Rosedale was owned by the National Cathedral. It had been used as a boarding campus for wealthy southern Episcopalian girls attending the National Cathedral School. The DC riots of 1968, however, had dampened white southern enthusiasm for Washington and the Cathedral found itself with, so to speak, a very white elephant

At the time, I was one of 300 advisory neighborhood commissioners elected in the city. Since the commissioner idea had been one of my pet projects, I took my responsibilities seriously, never more so than when word came that the National Cathedral planned to sell beautiful Rosedale to the Bulgarians for an embassy and chancery. The neighbors were beside themselves, their favorite position, and I was more than willing to join the fray.

Although the sales price of houses in Cleveland Park in those days were one to two digits fewer than today, the neighborhood was already filling up with lawyers. Among their civic functions was developing a standard for membership in the neighborhood’s small club, carefully crafted to exclude group rentals but not gays: “A member shall consist of an adult person and his or her spouse, or such other person acting substantially in the capacity of spouse. . . ”

There were still plenty of non-lawyers, such as the man in the back of the room who, upon hearing the above at first reading, asked: “How can we tell?”

Whatever our skills, we set about with vigor to block the Cathedral’s plan. A member of the family that had formerly owned the land spoke wistfully of it having been passed to the church “in Christian trust.” Terry Lenzner’s father-in-law provided counsel not only on commercial, but canonical, law. For my part, as a recovering Episcopalian turned navipasqua (one who goes to church only on Christmas and Easter), I was more than happy to take on the bishop. This was, after all, a religion that included among its sins acts of supererogation — which is to say doing more good works than the lord demands of you — clearly not a faith to be trusted in an planning dispute.

We finally bearded the bishop in a crowded meeting at St. Alban’s school. Noting that the bishop was seated between his treasurer, a CIA official, and the head of his foundation, another agency man, I prefaced my remarks by telling Bishop William Creighton that it looked as if the score was Caesar 2, God 1. Creighton did not flinch but when it was his turn to speak, he pulled out the stops, suggesting an anti-Eastern European tenor to the community’s opposition. When it was my turn, I looked Creighton right in the eye and told him what I thought of the charge, concluding that “on the whole, I have been treated better by Bulgarians than by Episcopalians.”

And I wasn’t the most vociferous. Still, the Cathedral held its ground until someone uncovered an ancient written agreement that the Cathedral would not act except upon consultation with the neighborhood. The moral hand passed to our side and it was not long before Ambassador Popov and his embassy were gone and Youth For Understanding was making an offer, encouraged — I did not doubt — by the two agency men at the head table, Robert Amory and Richard Drain.

I considered myself a practical pol, however, and had no objections to replacing high-rise diplomats with low-rise spooks. All we now wanted was the historic right of residents and their dogs to wander across the grounds. The easements were eventually signed and the neighborhood enjoyed 25 years of what amounted to a private park. It was the scene of touch football games and amorous assignments and floating frisbees. Our Labrador retriever, Chebeague, learned her brand identity at Rosedale, developing such misplaced skill that she once escaped early in the morning to retrieve not only our newspaper, but that of five neighbors as well.

With so much happy use, it would be wrong to begrudge Elian an opportunity to enjoy it as well. But he will not come alone, he will be accompanied by men in black vans, big guns, and bland faces whom we will be paying (for reasons that remain uncertain) to protect a Cuban kid the way they protect, say, a vice president or a cabinet official. They will undoubtedly tell the neighbors that they can no longer use Rosedale as they have in the past. And the same rules will apply to dogs. The day-glo green tennis balls will thus remain unmasticated behind bushes and in crevices until the administration and the courts figure out finally what to do about Elian.

I have already apologized to one neighbor for having ever suggested Rosedale, although it was probably far from a unique idea. As former commissioner of District 7C, however, I also strongly suggested a review by a dog-owning attorney of the relevant easements, particularly those sections relating to the rights of canines. Perhaps the park could be divided in two — a dog walk and an Elian walk. In any event, it is only fair that Elian — just like every other foreign visitor over the past two decades — share Rosedale with the neighbors and their dogs. No issue is so important that it justifies denying a dog’s place in the sun.

LATER: As suggested by the Review, the authorities have established separate dog and Elian runs at the Rosedale estate where Clinton’s favorite Cuban is housed these days. Yellow police tape separate the two, and because dogs tend to ignore even automatic weapons, the dogs are required to be on a leash. . .

Now our special correspondent on the scene files this report: “The running dogs of Cleveland Park occasionally slip the leash and make a dash for freedom under the tape. So far, most if not all have been called back before agents could unhouse their weapons from the discreet pouches they carry to conceal the hardware.

BEFORE ELIAN left our hood, there was a party for he and his father, with the kids in the basement and adults upstairs. I had a pleasant talk with Sr. Gonzalez, and told him of my plan for Cuban economic success once the barriers between our countries were lowered: they should sell their magnificent collection of old cars for high prices. He understood exactly since he owned a classic 1950s vehicle .

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