How do you see the Elián saga?
A prominent Cuban-American businessman, he tried to negotiate a resolution to
the impasse between the U.S. government and Elian's family in Little Havana.
Saladrigas also was one of the thousands of Cuban children who were sent to
the US in the early 1960s as part of "Operation Pedro Pan."
I think when history is written, it's going to tell us that it marked a
significant turning point in our history. It has done several things for us.
On the one hand, it made the Cuban community realize that there is a
significant amount of animosity and lack of understanding of what this
community is all about, and why we care so deeply about some of these issues.
. . . We came here as a community, and we very much made a decision that we
were not going to integrate into the mainstream of American society in the
sense that other immigrant groups have done before. We didn't come here with a
specific desire to become part of the melting pot. We made a very conscious
decision that we needed to retain a lot of our cultural and linguistic
identity--not only because we still needed that to remain part and parcel of
the Cuban process, but also because we saw a lot of economic value in retaining
As the world changes and the economy becomes more global, we're going to see
other immigrant groups begin to realize that there is a significant economic
benefit in retaining a lot of that cultural identity. So the message for the
rest of America is that we need to become more like a mixing bowl.
When did the Cuban community in Miami realize they were losing the battle
We sort of realized it after the raid, when we saw the reaction of the rest of
the community. But we also understand that a lot of the sentiments that flared
up in that aftermath were not things that were created by the Elián
González affair, but were issues that lay dormant in the community, and
this let them out of the closet.
What are some of those issues?
One issue that is particularly hurtful is what we see as animosity towards the
Cuban community for our behavior. This is hard to understand, except when you
put it in the context of either xenophobic reaction or some other type of lack
of understanding of our differences. Instead of Carlos De La Cruz and Carlos
Rodriguez negotiating with the attorney general, if it had been people like
[retired Knight-Ridder chairman] Alvah Chapman or [Holland & Knight
chairman emeritus] Chesterfield Smith, who are two very prominent figures in
the community, I don't believe that the raid would have taken place.
Why do you feel that way?
Well, when you have people negotiating a settlement, you don't send in the
troops in the middle of the negotiations. That's a significant breach of
How did you get involved in the negotiations?
We got involved a couple of weeks before the raid when [University of Miami
President] Tad Foote, called the attorney general and offered our services. He
said, "Is there anything that we in the community can do to help solve this
problem?" She said, "No, I want to wait until we hear from the court of
On Wednesday before the raid--when the court of appeals made its preliminary
finding--President Foote called again, and Reno said, "Yes, I accept the
services of these community leaders. Let's talk about what can be done." On
Thursday, we called the attorney general, and we spent several hours with her
on the phone, crafting the details of what we all expected could be the basis
of an agreement.
And then, what happened?
By four o'clock on Thursday, we had finished. I had been writing down all the
different points of this agreement, and at the end of the day, she found those
terms acceptable. She told us that she couldn't guarantee that they would be
successful, but that she thought they were reasonable and fair, and she would
push very hard. She wanted us to assure her that we could sell these
conditions to the Cuban-American community and to the family members. We said,
"We'll do our best, and we'll let you know as soon as we do."
We left Aaron Podhurst's office around five o'clock on Thursday, and then we
went out and we must have talked to over 35 individuals--leaders of different
groups within the Cuban-American community. We finished that day at two
o'clock in the morning on Friday, so we were up pretty late. We had 100
percent consensus from all the people that we talked to, from all the leaders
of the different groups in the Cuban-American community, that they would
support this proposal.
Our next task was to sell the proposal to the family. We reset our agenda on
Friday morning at eleven a.m. At that point, we met with family members, and
by approximately three o'clock, we had an agreement from the family members
that they would accept the proposal. We then called the attorney general
around four o'clock or so on Friday. We communicated that to her, and she
said, "I need to see it in writing." We typed the terms of the agreement. We
faxed them to the attorney general, and then she calls back and she says, "I
want to see the signatures of the family members on these papers." Remember
that we were working on the assumption that a formal legal agreement would be
drafted, so in our minds, we were dealing with a draft. The family members had
gone home, so we went to their home to get them to sign it. They didn't have a
fax at home, so it took us a little longer. By eight o'clock or so, we had
faxed the same term sheet to the attorney general with the family members'
signatures on the deal, with only one change--a change that I suggested. In
addition to the other experts that would be in the compound to facilitate a
transition, we included a Catholic priest to provide spiritual counseling to
the family. That was the only change that was penciled in that was different
from the version that she had been sent at four o'clock that day.
At that point, we thought that we had an agreement. We had an agreement whose
conditions we had drafted with the attorney general the day before. There had
been no change to any of those terms from Thursday to 8:30 p.m. on Friday. So
we even talked about going home, that it was getting too late on Good Friday,
that nothing would happen until the next day.
Then we get a call from her, probably around ten o'clock or nine thirty at
night, saying that one of the conditions was not
acceptable--the condition that had to do with these facilitators or experts
that would be available to assist in the transition of the family. The
original agreement was that the names of those individuals would be mutually
acceptable to both parties, which we are thinking meant both the Miami family
and the attorney general. At no time were we thinking the Miami family and
Greg Craig or the Miami family and the Cuban government as the two parties.
The other party wasn't the father?
Not even the father. We thought the party to the agreement was going to be the
attorney general. So I said to her, "General, the family does not trust, quite
frankly, your ability to select these experts. The last time you selected an
expert, you chose this New York pediatrician, who, on national television, gave
a diagnosis of the child and never even saw the child for one second. So let
us suggest that we put a group together of four people consisting of the
archbishop of Miami, Chesterfield Smith, Tad Foote, and Armando Codina, and let
that group give you a slate of experts' names from where you can then choose
and make your own decision."
And I suppose that she believed that was fair and acceptable, so we moved on to
another point. We didn't hear from them for quite a while. In fact, it was
not until well after midnight that we heard back from Aaron Podhurst that the
attorney general was agitated, that she was quote, unquote, "under enormous
pressure," and that she was saying that the deal had changed substantially.
What we have learned subsequently is that Aaron Podhurst received a fax from
the attorney general earlier that evening, presumably around eleven or
eleven-thirty, but he was out of the house and did not get this until later.
We told him that we had to wake up the family to discuss what were major
changes in the terms, and we did. And by the time we were talking to the
family about these major changes, the raid took place.
What were you feeling?
About the raid? I was in shock. The last thing in the world we expected is
that a raid would happen after agreeing to have two community individuals there
negotiating a settlement solution. The last time I remember something like
this was when the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor. You just don't send troops
when you have a negotiating team in place. It's just never done. To me, this
is an enormous breach of trust.
So you were sitting in that house . . .
We were sitting in the house. We were on the phone to the attorney general,
through Aaron Podhurst, when literally they came through the door.
I remember telling Aaron Podhurst, "They are here." We can't believe this, and
he, in turn, was saying to the attorney general, "How could you do this?"
What did she say?
I don't know what she said at that point, because I was not directly on the
phone with her. We were on the phone with Aaron Podhurst, who in turn was on
the phone with the attorney general. But at that point, it was a lot of chaos
and people were running all over the place. There were other children in the
house, relatives of the family, and they were tear-gassed. It was just total
Were you tear-gassed?
We were in the back of the house . They said that they threw tear gas outside
of the house and that it came in through the windows. I was all the way in the
back of the house and there was a significant amount of tear gas in that room,
although there was never any specific canister in the rooms. It must have come
from the other rooms of the house.
How long were you in the house?
We were in that house since literally 4 p.m., 5 p.m., on Friday all the way
until the raid.
And when the raid happened?
When the raid happened, I left as quickly as I could, because my wife was
outside of the house along with other women who were holding a prayer vigil,
and I was concerned. I wanted to see what happened to her, so I left looking
She was outside, and she was tear-gassed and roughed up a bit, but okay.
You're saying that this raid was racist?
What I'm saying is that there's an implication that because we were two more
members of the Cuban-American community, maybe there was the expectation that
we would not be independent; that we would not be rational; and that they had
to deal with us in that manner.
I stand convinced that if it had been two prominent members of the Anglo
community, the troops would not have come in. Not while they were there. Let
me give you another point. The Justice Department later said that the reason
they used such an extreme show of force was because they believed there were
weapons in the house. Well, how did they allow us to go there and negotiate
and expose us to the danger of possible gunfire?
What do you think happened?
I certainly can speculate, and I have my own opinions. I think they have to
do with enormous political pressures from the White House, and maybe, in turn,
from the Cuban government to the White House. I can certainly understand where
the attorney general may have had a sense of frustration over the negotiations
in the past that didn't go anywhere. But that's neither here nor there. The
fact is that she had accepted four prominent community members to get involved
to negotiate a solution. She knew that two people in the group were inside the
house, conducting those negotiations, and still the raid was carried out. Why
couldn't she wait until we were out of there? Why couldn't she wait until we
have finally concluded that there was no further hope or that we had a deal?
My sense is that the Cuban government was not interested in a deal. And as the
possibility of the deal increased, the pressure increased on taking prompt
action to shortcut the probability of a deal.
Have you received any explanation since then?
The only explanations that we got were the explanations that you have heard in
the media--that they had to do it, and that they had already exhausted all
avenues. But they had not exhausted all avenues. The last avenue that they
tried was still in process.
Perhaps the father did not agree.
It may be. But then we should have been told that this agreement had to be
acceptable to the father. We should have been told that we were negotiating
with the father. Or with Greg, or the Cuban government, and not with the
attorney general. We were under the impression that the attorney general had
the power to say, "This is the deal, and this is the way it's going to be."
You think she didn't have that power?
It is apparent to me from the outcome that no, she was not in that position.
What was the proposal your team had drafted with the family in Miami?
Let me see if I can remember all the terms. Basically it consisted of a safe
house or a compound where both families would live together in separate
quarters during the appeal. There would also be a group of facilitators that
would facilitate the process of interaction between these two families. It
also included a provision that no members of the Cuban government, no members
of the Cuban-American Foundation, and no one from the Miami exile community
would be allowed inside the compound. No one but the family members would be
allowed inside that compound. Also it had included there that the Miami family
accepted and understood that legal custody of the child had been transferred to
They would give him to the father?
Yes. . . . The wording that we used in the term was exactly the wording that
was acceptable to the attorney general. If there was concern about that
language, why didn't somebody tell us that before?
At what age did you come here?
I came in 1961 at the age of 12, as part of the Pedro Pan network that was
getting children out of Cuba at that time.
How long did you live by yourself?
It was rough. It was a difficult experience. I was an only child, so I went
from being a very pampered 12-year-old to being an adult pretty much on my own.
I stayed with a number of relatives. I bounced around a little bit, because
the relatives kept moving from house to house, getting different jobs. It was
a very unstable period. I had to work hard to save some money, so that when my
parents would come, we would have a little bit of savings to be able to get
Explain what you wanted regarding Elián's future.
This is where the Cuban-American perspective on Elián differs from
everybody else, because we have a unique perspective that we look at this from.
As a former Pedro Pan child, I very much could empathize with Elián.
Today I am so thankful for Pedro Pan and for having had an opportunity to grow
up in America; the freedoms and the opportunities that we enjoy; and to raise
my family in this kind of a setting. And I could understand the wishes of the
mother--that she wanted Elián to grow up with those same opportunities.
So this is one of those things where we just didn't see eye to eye with the
rest of America, I suppose.
You think it was better for him to stay?
Oh, definitely. There was no question in my mind that Elián would be
far better off having staying here than going back to Cuba.
What if your parents never came?
It's not the same situation. But our parents sent us out, knowing full well
that a possibility existed that they would never see us again. Certainly my
parents did, and many others did and never saw their children again. But this
is what being a parent is all about. This is what being a father is all about.
I'm a father of four. What is more important than freedom? You just don't
have freedom in Cuba. If I were in my parents' shoes again, it would be a
difficult decision. I'm not trying to minimize the difficulty of the decision,
but I would do it. I would not raise my children in the Cuba that we know or
in the Soviet Union that we knew. If we could have a chance to send them to
America to live and grow up to be free, it's worth every sacrifice.
What about the father wanting to be with him?
I don't understand. Two things are possible. One is that he believes in the
ideology, and he's entitled to that. The other is that he's being totally
coerced. And I think we have to be open to both possibilities. This is why
the family wanted so much to have an opportunity to be face to face with Juan
Miguel, to understand in their hearts whether Juan Miguel truly believed in
what he was saying, or whether he was being coerced. Quite frankly, if the
family had been afforded that opportunity and Juan Miguel said he wanted to
return to Cuba, they would have been saddened, but they would not have objected
to his taking his child back.
What do you think was behind the animosity towards Cubans?
Quite frankly, I think it was media-created, because we live in a world of
sound bites. The issue of whether Elián should go back to Cuba or stay
here is a complex moral and ethical issue, which can not be easily explained.
I think the way the Cuban government played this and the way the media played
this and the way the Clinton administration played this, we just didn't have a
hope of winning this public relations battle. In that battle, we were cast as
being ideologically obtuse, as being so right wing that we couldn't see even
the human dimension of a child being with his father. Yes, we could all see
that. There were many Cuban-Americans who said, "Maybe this child should be
with his father."
What was it about?
In the beginning, it was a simple custody issue, or just one more case of
another Cuban rafter and the tragedy of the Cuban nation that has had to endure
that kind of an exodus in their search for freedom and opportunities and
In the end, it turned out to be a historical event of major proportions that
literally will change and affect, in my opinion, the course of Cuban history
forever. It has changed forever the exile community. It has changed forever
the Cuban nation. And it has changed forever the life of Elián
González. He became a pawn in a political game and he got caught in the
middle. And at the end, everything mattered but Elián.
Why did it go wrong for the Cuban-American community?
This is my own perspective, but I think the Cuban-American community made a
major mistake in politicizing this thing early on. If you remember early on,
just right after the kid come out of the hospital, he put on a shirt of the
Cuban-American Foundation and then posters were made and taken to Seattle.
Castro is a genius strategist, and I think he saw a significant opportunity
here to score a number of points, to both get a quick easy victory for him and
to help bolster his position in Cuba.
And at that point, the whole situation moved from being a family issue to being
a political issue. Castro saw an opportunity here to embarrass the exile
Did you realize how the Cuban community began to look to others?
We were realizing that early on, even as early as December. We were very
concerned with the impact this was having on the perception of the Cuban
community, what impact it would have on exile politics, US policy towards Cuba
and so forth. We began to see the not-so-invisible hand of Castro behind all
of this maneuvering. It was almost as if the script for all of this had been
written in Havana. But for some reason, there was not a desire on the part of
civic leaders to get involved. Perhaps they felt that we couldn't have much of
an impact, that things were a little bit out of control already.
There has been talk, speculation by some about an agreement between Clinton
Again, I have to stress that this is speculation. I don't know for a fact,
but my honest speculation is that clearly there was some kind of understanding.
Whether it was a result of a threat by Castro to do something, or whether the
Clinton administration decided to do something positive to earn the good will
of Cuba, I don't know. But it appears logical to assume or to believe that
there was some kind of an understanding.
What are your feelings about the US embargo and the Brothers to the Rescue
What I can not understand today is why an indictment has not progressed against
Castro for the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue plane. These were
American citizens that were taken down in national waters against every legal
and international convention there is. I know the work has been done to put
together an indictment, and for some reason, the administration is not letting
I don't believe that the reason that Castro ordered those planes to be shot
down was because he doesn't want the embargo lifted. I believe that he and his
government very much would like to see the embargo lifted. It would be in
their benefit. It would significantly remove the foreign investment risk. It
would facilitate trade credits and other forms of governmental assistance that
would temporarily bolster the Cuban economy.
Do you support lifting the embargo?
I am not for the unilateral lifting of the embargo. I do recognize that the
embargo is an old policy that has not produced the expected result that
everybody wanted--the immediate downfall of the Cuban government. So I
believe we need to search for alternatives. But I don't believe we should
dismantle what we have now until we have a better alternative.
Why did Castro shoot the planes down?
I don't know if I could read his mind. My guess is that the Brothers to the
Rescue activities were embarrassing him and were exposing a lot of the
weaknesses of the government internationally. And he wanted to make a clear,
decisive and unequivocal point that he was not about to take that kind of
provocation any more. My understanding is that he's likely to have that kind
of impromptu behavior. . . .
Has the Elián case been good in the short run?
In the short run, the Elián case has not been good to the Cuban
community. But over the mid-term and the long-term, we will find that it has
had a very positive impact. Again, I want to emphasize, not for
Elián--I think it was very unfortunate for the child. But clearly for
the Cuban community, it has been a watershed event. It has helped the Cuban
community realize that we all need to get involved in the cause for Cuban
freedom and democracy; that we need to reevaluate our strategy; that we need to
reassess what we're doing. We need to explore new alternatives, newer
strategies. We need to do a better job of communicating to the world and to
the people in America why this is important.
And then we need to reach out to our own brothers and sisters on the island, so
that we can reach a process of better understanding and working together to
develop a future for Cuba. In my opinion, we have, for too long, been focused
on the past. We have, for too long, been focusing on the person of Fidel
Castro and quite frankly, Castro and his ideology are not relevant to Cuba's
future. His policies offer no future to young Cubans on the island. It is a
bankrupt ideology. We need to show the Cuban nation what the future can be
like. We need to show them how we can rebuild a nation that's based on
democracy, on free markets, on social justice, and on brotherhood or sisterhood
and what love and reconciliation can bring to a nation. That is, I think, the
important message for the Cuban people. We can make it happen. Castro is not
relevant any more. Let's focus on the future.
Have you changed in the last few months?
Oh, I have. There has been enormous amount of retrospective thinking, of
introspective thinking, of reassessment, of reevaluation. One of the most
wonderful things that is happening is that young people, many of whom are
US-born Cuban-American children of Cuban-Americans, are desperate to find a way
to get involved. So in the end, the Elián González affair will
prove to have been a very positive event for Cuban history.
home · analyses · interviews · timeline · discussion
video excerpt · links · readings · synopsis
tapes & transcripts · press · credits
frontline · wgbh · pbs online
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation
top photo © afp/corbis