U.S. threatens to take Cuban boy on Thursday

In move last night, Justice acts to force swift return to father

March 28, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Running out of patience, the Justice Department threatened last night to take a Cuban boy away from his Miami relatives this week and start the process of returning him to his father in Cuba.

Presumably, 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez would not be sent back to Cuba until his legal status is settled in court. A federal appeals court indicated yesterday that it might not decide the case for six weeks or more.

The Justice Department demanded a meeting this morning with the relatives' lawyers and urged them to bring along Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who has temporary custody.

That meeting is to determine whether the great-uncle will promise, in writing, to turn over Elian to federal officials for return to his father, if the family loses in court. Unless such a promise is given, the boy cannot remain with the uncle, the Justice Department says.

"Without a specific written commitment, we have no choice but to move forward ... as of Thursday" to terminate the boy's legal right to remain in the country, the letter said.

That would force the uncle to give up the boy and would set in motion the process leading to Elian's return to Cuba.

What remained unclear last night was when and how the department might take the boy from the uncle's home in the Little Havana section of Miami. Cuban exiles vowing to resist have surrounded the home.

The Justice Department has been hoping to work out a peaceful solution. It has been willing to allow the matter to go through the courts, where Elian's uncle is seeking to force the Justice Department to consider granting the boy political asylum so he can stay in the United States.

At today's meetings, the relatives' lawyer were told, "we intend to discuss the ramifications" of changing Elian's present status as an alien temporarily allowed to remain in this country. Also on the agenda will be "the orderly return of Elian to his father."

The most important things to be discussed, the Justice Department said, are "measures to ensure that the transfer occur in a manner that is sensitive to the needs of Elian."

It is unclear whether the boy's uncle has any legal way to stop federal officials from taking the boy while the court case unfolds.

Last night's developments added to the tension building in South Florida, particularly in Little Havana, over Elian's fate.

While the government said yesterday that "force has never been threatened" as a way to retrieve Elian, crowds have gathered around the great-uncle's home to block the boy from being taken.

About 100 people gathered outside yesterday. Many of the protesters responded to a call by the Democracy Movement, an anti-Castro group, to be ready to form a human chain around the home.

Tensions in Little Havana intensified as relatives kept Elian home from school because, their spokesman said, they feared that President Fidel Castro might use force to return the boy to Cuba.

The relatives sought to build sympathy for Elian, allowing him to be interviewed on ABC's "Good Morning America" about how he survived after he and his mother fled Cuba in a boat that capsized in November. In the interview, Elian said he did not believe his mother had died.

Reno aides fearful of a confrontation over Elian have revised their demands for cooperation several times, hoping to find a peaceful solution. Yesterday afternoon, the Justice Department made it clear that Reno and her staff were not satisfied with the relatives' response to the latest ultimatum -- insistence on an agreement to swiftly end the deepening impasse.

The family yielded in part to a Reno demand made Friday: a rapid appeal on the legal issues affecting Elian's fate. Attorneys for the family filed papers yesterday and asked for a fast-track procedure, but rebuffed the schedule proposed by the Justice Department.

The court set a hearing for May 8 -- four weeks later than the Justice Department had wanted.

The relatives apparently have balked at a demand by Reno and her aides that they promise, in writing, to hand over the boy if the appeal fails.

"They have not agreed to provide written assurances that they will comply if they do not prevail" in the appeals court or the Supreme Court, said Carole Florman, a Justice Department spokeswoman. "We do not consider them in compliance with Friday's letter."

A new letter was sent last night.

Even before receiving any new demands from the Justice Department, the family's lawyers wrote Reno last night to say they are cooperating and to "request that your officials cease their constant threats" of removing Elian from his uncle's home.

The Justice Department laid out its grievances against the Miami relatives -- and the uncle in particular -- in a sharply worded document filed in the appeals court. The filing reflected the frustration that has been building in top levels of the department.

That appeals court is the one in which relatives filed an appeal yesterday to challenge a week-old ruling by a federal judge against the family's plea that the boy be granted political asylum. The judge upheld Reno's decision to reunite Elian with his father, Juan Gonzalez, without any review of asylum, which the father opposes.

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