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Miami Protesters Move to Courthouse

April 24, 2000

MIAMI (AP) _ Women who had held morning prayers each day outside the home of Elian Gonzalez’s Miami relatives moved their protest today to the federal courthouse complex, where they accused federal agents of child abuse.

More than 60 women dressed in black gathered peacefully, holding the widely seen photos of the 6-year-old boy and a federal agent with a gun. The original photo was taken by a photographer working for The Associated Press.

``As mothers and children we are here to condemn the child abuse perpetrated by federal authorities,″ said Sylvia Iriondo, who organized the months of prayers.

At the Gonzalez family home in the city’s Little Havana section, one lone protester stood vigil as the day began.

Earlier today, protesters honked horns and waved Cuban flags as they cruised city streets. Others stood on streetcorners and police made several arrests when demonstrators failed to disperse.

Fire Department Battalion Chief Skip Kruse said a fire that broke out behind a supermarket near where protesters had gathered was apparently set. There were no injuries.

On Sunday, chanting demonstrators had mingled with camcorder-carrying spectators outside the house. Hundreds gathered to sing and pray, leaving red roses, carnations and other flowers woven into the chain-link fence surrounding the home. The crowd dwindled to about 70 as night fell.

More than 400 people gathered for an emotional Mass for Elian on Sunday at Our Lady of Charity Catholic Church.

The congregation cheered and wept as the Rev. Francisco Santana spoke. Some waved Cuban flags and at one point, they sang the Cuban national anthem.

Caridad Gonzalez, Elian’s great-aunt, was among a group of the boy’s relatives seated on the front row. When Santana beckoned her to the front of the church, the congregation stood and cheered.

``More than ever, I feel proud to be Cuban,″ Santana said. ``We are a noble community, we are a decent community.″

Robert Vento, 45, stood outside the church during the service. Vento said his father died in 1959, while fighting against Cuban President Fidel Castro. Vento now believes Elian’s saga marks the end of the Castro’s power.

``He is going to bring salvation to the Cubans from communism,″ Vento said. ``He is a chosen one. He will be the beginning and the end for Castro.″

Vento also hopes the boy’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, will decide to stay in the United States.

``If he defects,″ he said, ``Castro will be unmasked.″

After watching television news reports that Elian had been ``snatched away,″ Garvin Harris used a plane ticket he won in a raffle to board a flight from his home in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

``I saw that they were pointing guns and hitting people down,″ the 29-year-old restaurant owner said Sunday, standing at the street where Elian had lived for five months. ``It’s just an overwhelming experience to see what’s really happening.″

``Elian are you OK?″ was scribbled in white on the back window of a car allowed to pass through the street when police briefly lifted barricades.

The streets of Little Havana were mostly calm Sunday, with shards of glass, overturned benches and a few boarded-up storefront windows marking the previous day’s violence.

In the hours after 6-year-old Elian was snatched away in a pre-dawn raid by federal agents, the neighborhood rose up in spontaneous protests. Demonstrators on Saturday started hundreds of small fires, and riot police cracked down hard. More than 350 were arrested.

On Sunday, traces of the anger remained. Two young women carrying signs supporting Attorney General Janet Reno’s order clashed with protesters. ``Not here! Not here!″ the protesters yelled, pulling one woman’s hair as she was escorted away by security guards.

But with Elian gone, the tension of the past weeks was missing, too.

Neighborhood residents circulated copies of the photograph of an armed federal agent with his hand extended toward a crying Elian.

Some versions replaced the faces of federal agents with those of Reno, who gave the go-ahead for the raid, and Castro. A poster-sized reproduction attached to the family’s front door included this label: ``Federal Child Abuse.″

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