Confrontation over Elian in Miami delayed

INS extends deadline

boy's father applies for visa to U.S.

Protesters keep vigil

March 31, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MIAMI -- The looming showdown between federal agents and protesters vowing to block the return of Elian Gonzalez to Cuba was delayed yesterday as immigration authorities extended until Tuesday the boy's permission to stay in the United States.

Meanwhile in Havana, Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, applied yesterday for a U.S. visa, setting in motion the process of reuniting him with his 6-year-old son.

In Washington, Attorney General Janet Reno was blunt about her intention to "enforce the rule of law" and turn over the boy to his father. "You bet," she said. "To drag this out does no one any good."

Protesters continued to hold vigil at the Little Havana home of Elian's Miami relatives. The boy has lived there for the four months since he was rescued clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast, a survivor of a sinking boat that killed his mother and 10 others trying to flee Cuba.

The crowd, chanting, singing and waving signs, most in Spanish, offered a small preview of the human chains and street blockades that officials might encounter if they have to retrieve the boy.

Elian was a mostly invisible presence. He has been kept home from school, although visited regularly by a teacher, since his case heated up this week. Yesterday afternoon, he ventured from the house briefly to do his now familiar, two-handed wave as he pressed shyly against his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez's legs.

Lazaro Gonzalez has refused to sign an agreement to turn the boy over to Immigration and Naturalization Service officials if the family loses its court fight to keep Elian in the United States. The INS has said it will revoke the boy's legal right to stay in the United States on Tuesday unless the document is signed.

The agreement contained a clause that would allow the INS to end the great-uncle's temporary custody of the boy if a major development occurs in the case, "including his father's coming to the United States," said a Justice Department official, requesting anonymity.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez has set one condition for coming to the United States: He must be assured that his son will be turned over to him as soon as he gets here, said his Washington attorney, Gregory Craig.

The INS said in response that it would be "hard pressed" not to arrange for the father to have the boy, no matter what the state of legal proceedings at that point.

Reno flatly rejected the idea -- pushed by the Miami relatives and newly endorsed yesterday by Vice President Al Gore -- that the dispute be settled by having a court decide what is in Elian's "best interest."

That approach, she said, would mean "the father can't decide that," because the issue would go to a judge. "Here, the father speaks for the child."

Craig said he was seeking visas for Elian's father and stepmother, their 4-month-old son and one of Elian's cousins. They were said to be prepared to leave Cuba as soon as the visas were approved.

The lawyer was told that the visas would have to be obtained in Havana. The State Department said the request would be handled swiftly.

The Cuban government also pressed for a delegation of 31 people to travel to the United States -- including Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly and Fidel Castro's point man on American affairs.

Craig said he asked the INS to allow the boy's father and other Cuban relatives to stay as long as it takes to complete the appeals process. A federal appeals court in Atlanta has scheduled the case for May 11.

As officials wrestled with the legal process, protesters vowed not to let the government take Elian.

"They'll have to get past all these dead bodies to get him," said Lourdes Alea, 17, waving her arm toward about 50 people who were clustered yesterday beyond a barricade that kept them one house from Lazaro Gonzalez's home. "This boy is a symbol of all of our freedom. We'll do everything we can to keep him here."

Alea, a high school student in nearby Coral Gables, was born in the United States, not Cuba, yet she fights the fight of her parents. She was one of the younger faces in a crowd dominated by older exiles.

Under a blistering sun, in temperatures approaching 90 degrees, dozens of people came and went -- or came and stayed all day -- in a show of support for keeping Elian here. Although their numbers were fewer and their demonstrations milder than Wednesday night's street-blocking protests, the crowd seemed no less resolute.

About 60 protesters spent part of the afternoon practicing their planned civil disobedience: They linked arms and surged forward as one. They plopped down on the ground, rehearsing how to prevent any vehicles from getting past. They simulated arrests.

But yesterday was mostly a day for settling in for a longer-than-anticipated haul, as the crisis that had seemed headed toward an imminent resolution was instead delayed again.

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