Clinton Prods, Reno Ups the Pressure Over Elian

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Easter would be the worst possible time for federal agents to swoop down on a Little Havana home to take away a young boy many in that community have likened to Jesus. But while it may not happen this weekend, the U.S. government has now sent the unmistakable, and perhaps irrevocable, message that it is saddling up a posse to retrieve Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives and reunite him with his father. First President Clinton on Thursday stepped up to the plate for the first time with an unambiguous call for boy and father to be speedily reunited. Then, Friday's New York Times and Washington Post carried extensive reports of the feds moving agents into Miami with a plan to enforce their custody transfer order despite the defiance of those around Lazaro Gonzalez's home.

Clinton's announcement signaled a clear political directive to an attorney general who, many in the administration and in her own department charge, may have made the task more difficult through her equivocating. After all, failing to carry through on previous ultimatums, and repeatedly promising that force would not be used, appears to have simply emboldened those resisting the transfer of Elian's custody. And the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals injunction against returning the boy to Cuba before the appeals process is concluded may not have diminished the government's legal ability to reunite the boy with his father at this stage, but it has certainly been a major morale booster for the protesters outside Lazaro Gonzalez's home, and that's likely to create a bumpy ride for federal marshals or INS officials sent in to collect Elian.

The Friday media reports, based on extensive official leaks, of federal agents gathering for a forceful intervention may be a calculated attempt to raise the psychological pressure on Lazaro Gonzalez to hand the boy over quietly. The feds are unlikely to move over the Easter weekend, which begins Friday, and if the protesters are expecting them Monday, they may wait a couple of days. But as government officials told the media, off the record, when it happens it's unlikely to be pretty. After all, having come this far the Cuban-American leadership may have little to gain — and much to lose — politically by simply stepping aside at this stage.