Family Outrage Unlikely to Alter Elian Outcome

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Images are the weapon of choice in the war over Elian Gonzalez, which may be why his Miami relatives are claiming that the photographs of the boy smiling happily as he was reunited with his father were faked. Elian's second cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez charged, during an emotional media conference in Washington on Sunday, that Saturday's pictures released by Juan Miguel Gonzalez's lawyers showing Elian warmly hugging his father and playing with his six-month-old half brother, Hianny, were somehow fabricated, because the boy's hair in the pictures was supposedly longer than at the time of his removal from the Miami household. "That picture that they showed with the father, that is not Elian. That hair is not Elian's," Marisleysis charged. "This is not Elian smiling." Hours later, Juan Miguel's attorney Greg Craig poured cold water over that line of attack by simply photographing the boy and his father playing happily at Andrews Air Force Base, and then handing the film to the Associated Press for processing.

While the fact that Elian appears happy and relaxed with his father now seems incontrovertible, the family's attack on the authenticity of the first photographs was hardly surprising, since those images had served as a kind of "happy-ending" counterpoint to a day that began with pictures of heavily armed masked men dragging a terrified boy screaming from his home of almost six months. Juan Miguel's Miami relatives are clearly in no mood to let go of the boy, however, and followed Elian to Washington within hours of his removal from their home, attempting unsuccessfully to gain access to the air base where Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family have sequestered themselves. The father indicated, through his lawyer, that he and Elian would be prepared to meet the Miami relatives only once emotions have cooled, but judging by Sunday's media conference that's unlikely to be anytime soon.

The Miami family now plan to take their battle onto Capitol Hill, where the Republican leadership has lashed out at the government's handling of the issue and vowed to hold a congressional investigation. But even if Congress becomes embroiled in debating whether Janet Reno was too heavy-handed or whether the Miami family's tactics left her no choice, that discussion ultimately remains a political postmortem that will pertain more to the battle for votes in November than to the future of Elian Gonzalez. Even as an election issue, the fact that millions of American voters were clearly horrified by the enforcement operation may be canceled out by the fact that a majority favored returning the boy to his father. And although Juan Miguel Gonzalez remains legally obliged to wait out his relatives' appeals before returning home to Cuba, without the boy in their house, his Miami relatives' campaign to keep him on these shores is likely to struggle to maintain momentum.