saving elian
interview: carlos saladrigas

picture of carlos saladrigas

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."
How do you see the Elián saga?

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 that identity.

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 for Elián?

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.

in the end it turned out to be a historical event that literally ... has changed forever the exile community 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 trust.

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 appeals."

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.

What happened?

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 pandemonium.

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 for her.

She was outside, and she was tear-gassed and roughed up a bit, but okay.

[elian] became a pawn in a political game and he got caught in the middle. and at the end, everything mattered but elian. 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 the father.

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 started.

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 economic opportunities.

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 community

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 and Castro.

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 plan?

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 it progress.

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.

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