Relatives told to yield care of Elian

Reno says father to get custody of child next week

Fulfilling `sacred bond'

Officials seeking `least traumatic' way to hand over boy

April 08, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After meeting with the father of Elian Gonzalez, Attorney General Janet Reno said yesterday that the Cuban boy's Miami relatives must transfer custody of 6-year-old Elian to his father next week.

With passions running high in Miami, Reno said she hoped the transfer could be arranged in a fair and orderly way to avoid any confrontation with the Cuban exile community. The boy's South Florida relatives have insisted that Elian remain in the United States.

"It is time for this little boy, who has been through so much, to be with his father," the attorney general said, adding that early next week, the Justice Department would give the Miami relatives who have cared for Elian instructions on when and where to hand over the boy.

The Justice Department sent a letter to the relatives in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood who have cared for the child in the four months since he was rescued at sea from the boat capsizing that killed his mother. The letters asked the relatives to meet Monday with three mental health professionals to determine the least traumatic way to transfer Elian to his father's custody.

In response, protesters in Miami's Cuban-American community backed away from a threat to block traffic around Miami's airport, although many said they still believe that Reno is trying to send a small child into the clutches of a Communist nightmare.

The attorney general insisted that she was trying to help fulfill a "sacred bond between a father and a son."

In their meeting yesterday, the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, made an emotional appeal to Reno, his powerful ally at the Justice Department. After the session, which Reno said included no Cuban officials, Gonzalez hugged the attorney general and expressed hope that his family would be reunited shortly.

"I am going to have my child soon," a stern-faced Gonzalez said in Spanish from the department's steps, his wife and infant son with him.

Gonzalez said that in his talks with Reno and other top Justice officials, he described his own pain and "the suffering my son Elian has been going through."

The presence of the 31-year-old Cuban on U.S. soil alters the dynamics of the international custody battle, shining light on a father's struggle, instead of on a political tempest in Miami.

"All you had to do was listen to him and look at him, and see how much he obviously loves this little boy," Reno said.

But the Miami relatives tried to broker their own deal to keep Elian in the United States. Through lawyers, they asked Gonzalez to meet with them Monday at their home -- alone -- to discuss Elian's future, according to a letter delivered to his lawyer yesterday. Some saw the letter as an invitation to Gonzalez to defect.

In the quest to bring Gonzalez to Miami, two Florida relatives -- Delfin Gonzalez, an uncle, and Alfredo Martell, a cousin -- flew here yesterday to try to meet with him. Police reportedly turned them away. The Miami relatives have insisted that their federal appeal be heard before Elian leaves the country, saying they would agree to hand over the child as long as he is granted his "day in court." But Reno made clear that once the Justice Department grants the father custody, he has the right to go back to Cuba with his son any time he wishes. .

"At this present moment, there is nothing to stop him from returning to Cuba," Reno said.

The latest developments set the stage for a showdown with the relatives over any efforts to remove Elian from the home. Federal officials have said they might have resort to a court order to allow them to return the boy to his father.

To avoid this scenario, Reno said that if the relatives turned over the child "in an orderly way," she would discuss with Gonzalez "whether he would stay in this country" until the courts resolve the matter weeks from now.

Gonzalez, a Cuban tourist worker who is staying at the Bethesda home of the Cuban government's senior diplomat in Washington, has not seen his child since November. Elian was found in the Atlantic on Thanksgiving, a survivor of the capsizing that killed his mother and 10 other people.

At the Justice Department, Gonzalez did not appear to demonstrate quite the television savvy shown by his Miami relatives, who have put Elian before the news media cameras with a puppy and a bunny. Gonzalez's lawyer, Gregory Craig, had to tell Gonzalez to turn and face the media throng.

Yet Gonzalez enjoys unequivocal support in the highest reaches of federal law enforcement.

"The law is very clear," Reno said coolly before a throng of reporters. "A child who has lost his mother belongs with his sole surviving parent, especially with one who has shared such a close and continuous relationship with his son."

Reno expressed some impatience over the tactics of the Miami relatives' lawyers.

"Instead of discussing how Elian should be reunited, the attorneys for the relatives continued to demand that we revisit the issue of whether Elian should be reunited," said Reno. "That is not what the law provides."

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