Defiance over Cuban boy builds

Castro offers to send father, others to U.S. during Elian appeal


MIAMI -- Cuban President Fidel Castro threw both sides in the custody battle over Elian Gonzalez for a loop last night with a proposal to send the boy's father and family, classmates, teachers and pediatrician -- among others -- to live with him in the United States while a court appeal over his fate is concluded.

Castro's made his announcement, broadcast live on Cuban television, in the middle of five hours of tense negotiations between Elian's Miami relatives and federal officials that failed to produce an agreement that might avert Elian's immediate return to Cuba. Both sides agreed to resume talks at 9: 30 a.m. today.

In the meantime, immigration authorities said, they would put off by 24 hours a threatened revocation of Elian's legal permission to remain in the country. That would mean that the Immigration and Naturalization Service could move to demand custody of Elian tomorrow if a deal is not reached today.

In a show of support, tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans gathered last night in the heart of Little Havana, holding candles, flashlights and glow sticks to form a vast, flickering cross of humanity in a mass prayer vigil for Elian.

Filling the intersection at Southwest Eighth Street and 19th Avenue, parents with baby strollers chanted in thunderous unison with factory workers and grandparents, filling the warm night air with their prayer: "Elian no se va. Lo dijo su mama." (Elian is not leaving. His mother said so.)

Their hope is that in sheer numbers, Miami's exile community can find the strength to keep 6-year-old Elian from returning to Cuba and the repression they believe awaits him there.

The sticking point of the immigration negotiations is when and how Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez would transfer Elian to INS custody if he loses the current appeal in federal court.

The talks were held in an atmosphere heavy with political recrimination and threats of disruptive protests, as exile leaders and elected officials in Miami and Tallahassee aimed a stream of harsh words at U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, backed by other local mayors, vowed not to help federal authorities take custody of Elian.

Stressing later that he would not allow "illegal demonstrations," Penelas, in a midday news conference, used unusually pointed language that seemed to accuse Reno and President Clinton of fostering unrest in Miami through legal "strong-arm tactics."

Officials surprised

Castro's proposal to send a virtual village to Washington surprised U.S. officials who had been monitoring the situation in Miami.

The offer went well beyond Castro's previous proposal to allow Juan Miguel Gonzalez to travel to the United States only to pick up the boy and return him to Cuba. U.S. officials said the proposal is so unusual that they remain skeptical.

Castro said it was "like bringing Cardenas to Washington,' " a reference to the town in north-central Cuba where Elian's family lives. The offer is designed, he said, to speed Elian's "reintegration" into Cuban society.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said she could not comment on the Castro offer. "We don't have any information on that. I don't know what to tell you," she said.

State Department officials said the boy's father had not applied for a U.S. visa by late yesterday.

The boy's Miami relatives, also unprepared for the offer, had little to say after their meeting with the government broke up about 9 p.m.

"The family is not going to agree to anything that's not in Elian's best interests, because Elian has suffered a lot," said Armando Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Miami relatives.

Castro's proposal might be intended to call the Miami relatives' bluff. The relatives have said they would consider turning over Elian to his father if he came accompanied by his new wife and child to ensure that he was not being coerced by the Cuban government.

The delegation would include, besides Gonzalez and his new family, a favorite cousin of Elian's, 12 of his first-grade classmates in Cardenas, including his best friend, Hansel Orlando, Elian's teacher, a psychiatrist and a legal adviser.

Castro described the group's members as "indispensable, according to the doctors' criteria, to proceed without losing a minute to Elian's readaptation."

The only conditions, Castro insisted on are U.S. assurances that Gonzalez would have physical custody of Elian throughout the legal process and that Washington "is doing everything required to expedite the boy's return to Cuba."

During a day of rising tensions, exile leaders angry at the government's tough posture said they were preparing street demonstrations, including blockades of Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami-Dade, if immigration authorities try to fulfill their threat to quickly send Elian home.

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