As Cuban-American leaders called for calm and Elian was reunited with his father at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, demonstrators set fire to trash cans, staged traffic slowdowns and scuffled with police.
By late yesterday, police had arrested about 250 people in connection with the sporadic disturbances, which were largely confined to the city's Little Havana section. Police, wearing riot helmets and wielding batons and shields, blocked some streets and used tear gas to disperse roiling, unruly crowds.
"We have our office in full mobilization," said Lt. Bill Schwartz, a Miami police spokesman.
That mobilization was set in motion by the 5:10 a.m. raid, when scores of officers from the U.S. marshals and the Immigration and Naturalization Service descended upon the narrow street of bungalows where Elian had lived with his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez.
Lazaro Gonzalez had defied repeated orders from the INS to surrender custody of the boy to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Even as the raid was occurring, witnesses said, representatives of the Gonzalez family and a group of Miamians acting as mediators were on the telephone negotiating a peaceful resolution to the case.
Instead, agents wearing helmets and shirts emblazoned with "INS FEDERAL AGENT" and "BORDER PATROL" cut through a chain-link fence, pushed aside a few demonstrators who had hastily formed a human chain around the house, and smashed down the door.
Eight agents, some with automatic weapons, entered the house and found the child in a closet with Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who rescued Elian on Thanksgiving after a shipwreck in which his mother and 10 others died.
A bilingual female agent wrapped Elian in her arms, telling him that she knew the situation was "scary" but that "We're taking you to see your papa." With other agents surrounding her, the agent carried Elian to a waiting government van.
They "took this kid like a hostage in the nighttime," Dalrymple said. "He was shouting, 'Que pasa? Que pasa? [What's happening?] Help me, help me.' They ripped him from my arms. They held the family with guns in the living room."
"They're animals," a weeping Marisleysis Gonzalez, the daughter of Lazaro Gonzalez who has acted as surrogate mother to the boy, shouted to protesters. Later, she, Lazaro and Dalrymple flew to Washington in an unsuccessful attempt to meet with Elian and his father.
At Andrews Air Force Base, Juan Miguel Gonzalez carried his son from the airplane, the boy's arms and legs wrapped tightly around him. Later, Elian smiled as he posed for a picture with his father. He was seen in another photo playing with Hianny, his 6-month-old half-brother. Elian wore a Batman T-shirt.
"He seemed to be very happy to be back with his father," said Gregory Craig, Juan Miguel Gonzalez's attorney. "It is amazing how quickly that bond reestablished itself. It was almost instantaneous." Elian and his father will remain at the base for a while and then be transferred to an undisclosed location to await a court ruling on the Miami relatives' request for an asylum hearing.
Reno said she decided to order the boy's removal by force after all-night negotiations failed to resolve the central issue in the dispute - how the Miami relatives would turn Elian over to his father, who two weeks ago flew to Washington from Cuba to await a promised reunion.
Federal officials had tried to avoid such a confrontation, but Lazaro Gonzalez seemed to invite it last week when he defied a direct government order to surrender the boy and challenged Reno to send in federal agents to get Elian.
"At every step of the way, the Miami relatives kept moving the goalposts and raising hurdles," Reno said at a news conference in Washington yesterday morning. Reno and her advisers decided at 4 a.m. to launch the raid.
She defended the use of force, saying that authorities had received reports that there were weapons inside the house.
"When law enforcement goes into a situation like that, it must be prepared for the unexpected," she said.
President Clinton, who said he had kept up with developments through the night, said he approved the raid once it appeared that negotiations would prove fruitless.
"I supported the decisions that were made . . . and I believe that it was the right thing to do," Clinton told reporters at the White House. "The law has been upheld."
The Miami relatives said that they were still negotiating and had been put on hold on the telephone by a mediator when the agents arrived. "We're angry and disgusted," said Kendall Coffey, an attorney for the relatives.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez's attorney confirmed that the boy would stay in the United States.
"Juan Gonzalez has made a commitment to remain in the United States during this appeal, and he will live up to that commitment," Craig said.
In January, six weeks after Elian's rescue, the INS declared that, in accordance with the law, the child should be returned to his father, who works at a Cuban hotel.
However, the boy's U.S. relatives - supported by the politically powerful and intensely anti-Communist exile community - objected, saying that the child should not be raised in Cuba.
For many exiles, the case stirred up bitter Cold War passions - passions that began spilling over even as the child was whisked away.
Those wanting the child to stay in the United States have kept a virtual 24-hour vigil outside the Gonzalez house, and about 50 people were present when officers came for Elian. As officers moved in, some protesters attempted to stop them but were held at bay by the armed officers and canisters of pepper spray fired into the crowd.
As unmarked vans pulled away from the house, some demonstrators threw chairs and other objects at them. Others simply wept in the middle of the street.
By sunrise, as word of the raid spread, protesters began rolling Dumpsters into the streets and setting fire to them, uprooting street signs, and overturning cement benches.
By noon, a phalanx of police officers in riot gear stood along Flagler Avenue, one of Little Havana's main thoroughfares, tapping their batons on their shields and periodically lobbing tear gas at the crowd.
Meanwhile, drivers honked their horns and waved small Cuban flags as they weaved down streets littered with flaming piles of trash and chunks of cement.
The scene throughout the rest of Little Havana was in sharp contrast to that outside the Gonzalez house. In front of the pale-blue bungalow, the atmosphere was quiet, almost funereal.
While many in the crowd were mournful, the dominant emotion was anger.
"What they did was an insult to the Cuban community," said Isabel Meruelo, 28, an education student, who carried a sign that read "Deport Reno." "The child is a human being; he's not a piece of furniture," she said.
Standing nearby, her friend, Terri Dixson, nodded.
"They acted like a Communist country," said Dixson, a nurse, referring to the federal raid. "They acted like the Cuban government would. They just came in the middle of the night and took what they wanted."
As Cuban-American leaders tried to organize a citywide protest for Tuesday, crowds three- and four-deep at the Gonzalez house pressed against yellow police tape hastily strung to replace the chain-link fence that federal agents had snapped during the morning's raid.
One man circulated through the crowd holding an inner tube affixed to boat oar with the words "Clinton Asecino de Ninos" (Clinton killer of children). Some people took photographs. Others waved Cuban flags and upside-down American flags.
In the yard where Elian had so often been photographed playing, there was only a foot-worn and thinning layer of grass. A wading pool with rainbows and giraffes lay crumpled by a back fence. A silver Mylar balloon floated above a yellow slide set engraved with the words "El Parque de Elian" (Elian's Park).
Richard Lezin Jones' e-mail address is email@example.com
* This article contains information from Inquirer wire services.