For weeks, we have all watched as high profile negotiations conducted
by governmental and unofficial intermediaries failed to bring a
peaceful conclusion to the custody crisis of Elian Gonzalez. Even the
Vatican’s offer to intercede was rejected. Finally, patient all night
talks got nowhere and Federal marshals with guns have reunited Elian
with his father.
Has the time for mediation passed? Or, is this the time when
mediation can still have a real impact on the lives of all involved?
Could the seemingly unresolvable positions and conflicting values in
this case benefit from the structured dialogue, creative futuristic
problem-solving and healing that mediation could offer?
Elian has been the new millennium’s first media poster child. The
world’s fascination with this case is more than Elian’s cuteness,
vulnerability and the tragic dramatic events that are shaping his young
life. While virtually everyone in America has an opinion on where Elian
should be raised, this story is swirling with important issues that are
so very emotional and important and beg for resolution in a calm,
professional manner in a private setting convened by a respected third
person such as President Jimmy Carter, Sen. George Mitchell, or
Professor Bill Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project.
We are a people of action. Attorney General Janet Reno was facing
pressure to act. She did. Yet the same passions that were present before
her Saturday morning tactics to remove Elian remain today. We are a
nation of law. Yet now there are several conflicting court orders in
this case. Even if the legal system ultimately decides that Elian should
be returned to Cuba, his loving relationships with his Miami relatives
need to be addressed. Will they ever see each other again? If so, how?
Will there be telephone contact, Christmas presents delivered, or
vacations together as Elian grows older? Is it better for these issues
to be resolved by judges in Cuba and this country or by a mediated
agreement negotiated around the family dining room table?
Many Miami citizens feel abused by police power. Others feel betrayed
by the defiant actions of Elian’s relatives. These polarized feelings
require conciliation to lessen resentments, prevent escalation to
violence, and perhaps lead to better understanding and healing.
Child custody litigation was once seen as so contentious and
adversarial that mediation was considered a waste of time. Today,
California law requires mandatory mediation of these most inflamed
family situations leading to complete private consensual agreements in
60% of the cases set for court hearings.
The tensions and bitterness between the Miami Cubans and US officials
may also seem beyond the power of mediation. Yet, in Northern Ireland
and the Middle East, baby steps of understanding and resolution are
underway through mediation. Like chicken soup, mediation may not help —
but it won’t hurt either.
Elian will move on with his life. New media poster children will take
his place. Just because conflict is no longer on page 1 does not mean
that its root causes are resolved, its symptoms treated, or its
solutions fully explored. The lessons of the past century have shown
that leverage is ephemeral and passes quickly. Rather than dwell on
either the success or the abuse of the predawn raid, mediation involving
all stakeholders should be initiated immediately so that Elian’s
emotional scars might lead to a measure of improved understanding and
resolution for those who have been so involved in his plight.
Forrest S. Mosten is President of Mosten Mediation
Centers with offices throughout the United States and was named 1999
Peacemaker of the Year by the Southern California Mediation Association.
Forrest Mosten can be reached at [email protected] and www.MostenMediation.com.