Cuban boy's father awaits his son in relative calm of Bethesda

Little of Miami fireworks greets Juan M. Gonzalez at diplomat's residence

April 07, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BETHESDA -- Juan Miguel Gonzalez took refuge in the most bourgeois of places yesterday, holing up amid the golf courses and minivans of American suburbia as he waited in the house of a Cuban diplomat for a hoped-for reunion with his son.

After Fidel Castro bid him good-bye in Cuba yesterday morning, the father of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez found himself bumper-to-bumper with the Washington middle class as he headed from Dulles International Airport during the morning rush hour to the home of Fernando Remirez, head of the Cuban Interests Section in the capital.

During the day, Gonzalez stayed out of sight behind covered windows, emerging briefly to shake the hands of some departing visitors while Montgomery County police stood sentinel, plastic handcuffs and pepper spray at the ready. An officer guarded the front door against hostile crowds that never appeared. The neighborhood instead was overtaken by reporters, idling satellite trucks and news helicopters.

Residents walked their dogs near the scene and otherwise tried to get a peek at one of the main figures in the international custody battle that landed at the end of their driveways. Neighbor Marie Anise let reporters tramp across her yard and use her bathroom while telling anyone who would listen that she hoped the boy and his father soon would return to Cuba.

"Of course he has more ice cream, more steaks, more Ralph Lauren here, but is that more important than when you hug and kiss your son at night and put him to bed?" she asked.

But others wished for the opposite resolution. "I might put a sign out that says, `Put this Cuban on a Frisbee and sail his tail back to Cuba and if Castro doesn't like it too bad,'" said Leon Trager, 72, who was visiting his children and former wife two doors down from the diplomat's home. "This is about freedom versus slavery."

Gonzalez said nothing to reporters while he and his infant son, Hianny, and his second wife, Nercy Carmenate Castillo, waited inside the split-level house.

In late afternoon, his lawyer, Gregory Craig, visited. Gonzalez is expected to meet with Attorney General Janet Reno and other officials in Washington today.

A handful of demonstrators followed Gonzalez to Bethesda, but were hardly the passionate throng that has descended upon the home of Elian's relatives in Miami. Last night, several Cuban-Americans came to the neighborhood for a candlelight vigil.

"We're hoping once Juan Miguel Gonzalez knows a breath of freedom, he will stay with his Cuban brothers here," said Nelson Ferragut, 57, a Cuban-American who lives nearby. "But I fear he will not stay -- he is Castro's mouthpiece now."

The contingent of federal law enforcement agents that greeted Gonzalez's arrival in the Kenwood Park neighborhood soon left, since Cuba's quasi-ambassador, Remirez, had temporarily moved out of his house. That move was meant to dismiss the notion that Gonzalez was under any pressure from the Cuban government to return to the island with the child.

"Do you know what I want to see? I want to see the father walk out right now and say, `I want to stay in the United States!'" said Vicente Raigoso, a Cuban-American camera man for Univision 23 television, who came from Miami to document the transfer.

Police are preparing for Elian's possible arrival in Bethesda, which could bring more demonstrators. But for now, there was little need for the Montgomery County command post stocked with gas masks, tear gas and riot gear.

It was calm enough for one officer to sip Cuban coffee, delivered on a silver tray by a man from the diplomat's house, and pronounce it tasty.

Even as the world waits to glimpse Elian with his father, residents here are trying to keep up an unwritten code of their neighborhood: privacy first.

"I don't think I want to be one more person invading this little fellow's privacy," said Marianna Taylor, 74, who lives nearby and whose driveway was covered by 15 cables from TV crews.

But despite themselves, residents could not help staring. "Sure, I'd be curious to see the little boy," said George Bryan, 75, out to view the scene. When he received a scolding glance from his wife, good manners prevailed. "Well," he said, "maybe if I were driving I would just slow down."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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