A family portrait

The scene outside Elian Gonzalez's Little Havana home was rather subdued on a recent Saturday afternoon. A few network news crews and photographers staked out the house from a neighbor's yard, huddled around a television set atop a milk crate, watching an NFL playoff game. In the street a stream of cars drove up and down the block, slowing to a crawl at times so the passengers could stare at the modest house still adorned with Christmas lights.

A dozen or so people milled in front of the home, hoping to catch a glance of the world's most famous 6-year-old. "Where is he?" a young boy asked his mother as they passed the fenced yard where Elian often plays. "Where's the puppy?"

"I don't know," the mother replied. "It doesn't look like anyone is home."

She was right. On this day Elian was at the circus.

At about 5:30 p.m. a dilapidated 1987 Honda Civic pulled up to the house, and a young man in his early 30s stepped out. Several people in the crowd recognized him and walked over to shake his hand. He was one of Elian's cousins, Luis Cid. His sister, Georgina Cid Cruz, recently has been representing the family before the media. Two weeks ago, for instance, she appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live."

The worldwide attention being paid to Elian's case (see A small boy lost in a political drama) has transformed nearly all his local relatives into celebrities. An older woman came forward and asked if she could have her photograph taken with Cid. He graciously complied. The woman quickly stood next to him and smiled broadly as her husband took a snapshot.

With any luck it will turn out to be a better picture than the unflattering mug shot taken of Luis Cid by Dade County jailers four months ago. According to police reports and court records, the 32-year-old was arrested by Miami police on Sept. 7 and charged with strong-arm robbery after he and an accomplice assaulted and robbed a tourist in Little Havana. The robbery took place about a half-mile from where Elian is now living. Cid is free on bond while awaiting trial next month.

This isn't Luis Cid's first encounter with law enforcement and the courts. In 1994 he was arrested on felony charges of carrying a concealed weapon and resisting arrest with violence. Also that year his ex-wife sought a permanent injunction against him alleging domestic violence, according to court records. In 1995 she sued him for child support. In 1998 he was arrested once more, this time on felony firearms and prowling charges.

Cid's twin brother also visits his uncle's Little Havana home to socialize with Elian. José Cid, like his brother, has had a history of encounters with police, a lengthy history. Between 1986 and 1990 he was arrested at least five times on felony charges including burglary, grand theft and robbery with force, according to court records. In 1994 he was arrested on charges of petit larceny. (The judicial outcome of the various criminal charges brought against the Cid brothers could not be confirmed by press time. Efforts to interview the brothers for this story also were unsuccessful.)

Men with multiple felony arrests casually mingling with Elian and his caretakers -- hardly the image the Miami relatives have sought to project to the world.

Family spokesman Armando Gutierrez says neither Luis Cid nor twin brother José live at the house where Elian stays, and they don't spend significant time with him. "They are not involved in anything to do with the care or the well-being of the boy," Gutierrez insists. "They are not around Elian. They may come and go after a few minutes, but they are not part of the immediate family that is taking care of Elian."

Elian lives with his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, Lazaro's wife Angela, and their daughter Marisleysis. Gutierrez claims Lazaro learned of the criminal histories of Luis and José Cid only after Miami New Times raised the issue in preparing this report. "Lazaro is just shocked," Gutierrez reports. "He knew nothing about this." (Lazaro Gonzalez's sister, who lives in Miami, is the mother of Luis and José Cid. The Cid family left Cuba and came to the United States via Costa Rica in 1983. The twins were 15 years old at the time.)

Gutierrez argues it would be "an injustice" for the problems of a couple of cousins to tarnish the reputation of the entire family. "In every American family there is always someone who has been in trouble with the law at one point or another in their lives," he ventures. "Everybody has somebody in their family who was a troublemaker. But this is not a criminal family."

The revelation that some of Elian's Miami relatives may be unsavory characters serves to highlight the fact that little is known about the people who have encircled the boy. The media have reported only the barest details: Lazaro Gonzalez is a 49-year-old mechanic, his 47-year-old wife Angela works in a factory, 21-year-old Marisleysis is a loan officer at a bank.

And the rest of the family? Even less is known about them, including Lazaro's sister Georgina Cid, mother of twins Luis and José. Lazaro's older brother Delfin is a fisherman who also sells lobster traps in the Florida Keys. According to Gutierrez, Delfin has been providing the bulk of the family's financial support since the Immigration and Naturalization Service released Elian to them in late November. Lazaro has another brother in Miami, Manuel, who reportedly is estranged from the clan because he has advocated Elian's return to Cuba. Gutierrez says he is not sure how many cousins Elian has in Miami ("I'm still trying to figure out the family tree," he quips), but estimates the number at more than a dozen.

The recent arrest of one of those cousins, Luis Cid, is likely to cause embarrassment to the Cuban exile community for the second time in four months. The crime Cid is alleged to have committed made national news this past September, long before anyone had heard of young Elian Gonzalez. At that time, however, Cid was not the center of media attention; the focus was on the man alleged to have been his accomplice, Manuel Angel Chiong.

Chiong was newsworthy because, prior to his arrest, his mother had participated in a highly publicized, 47-day hunger strike aimed at forcing the release of her son from South Florida's Krome detention center, where he was being held by the INS as a criminal detainee. (The 29-year-old Chiong previously had been incarcerated for armed robbery, aggravated battery and cocaine possession. Under the terms of a federal law, he should have been deported to his native Cuba, but the island nation's refusal to accept such deportees has led the INS to hold them indefinitely.) Five other mothers and a father, whose sons also were being held at Krome, joined Mireya Cortes, Chiong's mother, in the liquids-only fast until the INS agreed to review their sons' cases and consider them for release into the community.

Because of his mother's advocacy, Chiong was one of the first to be freed. But within two months of being released from a halfway house, he was arrested with Cid. According to police reports, Chiong and Cid were standing near a parking lot at 3090 NW 7th St. at about 3 a.m. when a lost tourist pulled up to ask them for directions. Chiong and Cid allegedly directed the tourist, Gordon Farrell of New Haven, Conn., to pull into the parking lot. When Farrell emerged from his car, Chiong reportedly grabbed him from behind and held him as Cid struck him in the head and grabbed two chains from his neck, according to the arrest affidavit.

Two City of Miami police officers patrolling the area heard Farrell's screams for help and saw him waving his arms. When the officers pulled into the parking lot, Chiong and Cid fled on foot but were quickly caught. Cid was found hiding under a nearby parked car. Police report they recovered Farrell's jewelry under that same car.

Farrell was not badly hurt. He suffered scratches on his neck from Cid allegedly tearing off his gold chains, but he was not seriously wounded by the blow to his head. Cid was released on a $7,500 bond, declared by the court to be indigent, and assigned a public defender. His case is scheduled to go to trial in early February. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.

Will Cid's robbery arrest have any effect on the proceedings relating to Elian Gonzalez? Bernard Perlmutter, director of the Children and Youth Family Law Clinic at the University of Miami, doesn't think so. "It is hard to say how much this would taint the family's claim that they can provide the best home for Elian," he remarks. Because Cid does not actually live in the house with Elian, his arrest would have only a "remote" chance of influencing any court action. And since José Cid's arrests are all at least five years old, Perlmutter sees no reason for legal concern there either.

As Perlmutter interprets applicable laws, nothing about the Miami family's ability to care for Elian should play a role in deciding whether the boy should be returned to his father. The only issue, Perlmutter says, is whether the father is fit or unfit to care for Elian. Absent strong evidence that the father is abusive or a threat to Elian's well-being, he adds, no court in the United States should sever a father's ties to his son, regardless of the father's nationality.

Elian's Miami family has gone to federal court in an effort to block the INS from enforcing its decision to return the child to Cuba. The Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has assigned Miami attorney Brenda Shapiro the job of writing a legal brief and arguing, if necessary, that the boy should be returned to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, in Cuba. "This is a constitutional issue," Shapiro says. "The lawyers for Elian's relatives in Miami must be ready to prove that the government has a compelling reason to take a child away from his parent. A parent's right to raise their child is sacrosanct, and nobody has challenged the notion that Juan Miguel Gonzalez has always been a hands-on father who cares for and loves his son."

Ironically the ACLU's actions in defense of Elian returning to Cuba would come at the same time the group is investigating claims by dozens of Cuban exiles who say they were abused by police during demonstrations to keep Elian in the United States. John de Leon, president of the ACLU in Miami, sees no conflict. One case, he says, deals with the right of people to protest and to be treated with respect and dignity by police. The other defends the right of a parent to raise his child. "They are really two separate issues," he maintains.

By all accounts Elian's Miami relatives sincerely love him. As evidence Armando Gutierrez points out that the family has had opportunities to cash in on Elian and consistently has turned them down. One man literally came to the Gonzalez's front door offering $15,000 in cash to help the family, Gutierrez says, but Lazaro declined. Movie producers from New York have called in hopes of buying the rights to Elian's story. Those offers also have been rejected, Gutierrez says. "These people are black beans and rice," he declares. "They are down to earth. They want to keep their decency, and they don't want to be seen as making money off Elian."

But the family has come under criticism from people who believe they should not have allowed politicians and self-proclaimed exile leaders to exploit Elian in their never-ending battle against Fidel Castro. Many also believe the family should have done more to protect the boy from the intense glare of publicity.

For those who believe Elian should stay in the United States, the debate often is reduced to a simple contest between the virtue of the United States versus the evil inherent in a Cuba controlled by Castro. An implicit assumption at the heart of their contention is the notion that the form of government under which the child lives is more important than the family with whom he would be living. "Which kind of family is a less important factor in how this boy should be raised than which kind of state," family attorney José Garcia-Pedrosa proclaimed in a recent issue of Time magazine.

The reason? Opportunity. The opportunity for freedom and the opportunity to reap the benefits of living in this prosperous nation. Opportunity, however, is no guarantee for success. Just ask Luis and José Cid.