Gonzalez Family Attracts Protestors, Politicians

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Bethesda, Maryland (CNSNews.com) -- Police, reporters, protestors, politicians, and gawking bystanders descended Thursday on this leafy Washington suburb to see how the latest chapter in the Elian Gonzalez saga plays out.

The quiet neighborhood street -- packed with SUVs and and lined with well-kept lawns -- has become an impromptu broadcasting studio, crisscrossed by wires and and blocked by barricades and satellite trucks.

More than 100 media outlets have set up outposts near the home of Cuba's chief diplomat where Elian's father, stepmother, and half-brother are staying, and police have cordoned off several nearby streets.

Thursday night, more than 50 Cuban-Americans held a prayer vigil near the home, calling on Juan Miguel Gonzalez to stay in America with his son.

"You could see the fear in his face, hear the fear in his voice, as he read his script," said Christina Portuondo to the assembled crowd, referring to Gonzalez' speech on arriving at Washington Dulles airport. "We are not against Juan Miguel; we support him and welcome him."

Friday, Gonzalez plans to meet with Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Director Doris Meissner to discuss plans for the transfer of custody.

The protestors prayed and sang -- and called on the White House and the Justice Department to remove the custody battle from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and place it before an impartial judge.

"Criminals get their day in court, Bill Clinton got a fair trial, and Elian Gonzalez deserves the same," Jessie Torres, a Capitol Hill staff member for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the group's organizer, told CNSNews.com.

A Cuban refugee who said he fought at the Bay of Pigs invasion, Alfonso Francisco told CNSNews.com that Gonzalez "was not here of his own free will."

"He's here on Castro's orders," Francisco claimed. "There are no parental rights in Cuba. . . . Fidel raises the children as he sees fit, not as parents want."

Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a Protestant minister, told reporters that he was "offended on behalf of Cuban-Americans for how they have been portrayed in the press."

"Cuban-Americans haven't made this a political issue, Bill Clinton and Janet Reno have made this a political issue," said Mahoney. "The Cubans are here in prayerful protest."

Mahoney also plans to petition the Montgomery County, MD, courts to allow protestors to move closer to the house. Presently, local police have set up a staging area for protestors two houses down from the home where the Gonzalez family is staying.

More than 100 local and state police, as well as 20 Maryland National Guardsmen and officials from the Justice Department, are stationed outside the home to keep order.

Just before the protests, Gonzalez received a visit from Reps. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Jose Serrano (D-NY). Afterwards, Serrano told reporters that Gonzalez showed them pictures of Elian and his family back in Cuba and told the congressmen how Elian slept between him and his current wife while she was pregnant with his second child.

"'We are a family,' he told me," Serrano said. "I saw his eyes get moist when I talked to him about my own children ... He asked, 'What do I have to do to prove I love my child?'"

The protestors and police who have stationed themselves outside the house have drawn the ire of local residents, who have complained loudly about the inconvenience.

"I'm planning on putting up a sign in front of my house saying, 'Get Off My Lawn!" one resident who declined to give her name told CNSNews.com. "I just hope they all leave soon."

But the family that has borne the brunt of the inconvenience - the Cuban diplomat's nearest neighbor, now virtually barricaded inside their home -- seemed excited by the commotion.

"It's very interesting to have all the press here," the mother of the family told CNSNews.com. "Still, if it goes on too long it will probably get old."