Like son, father moves from obscurity to news

Friends in Cuba wonder whether his life will ever return to normal

April 14, 2000|By BOSTON GLOBE

VARADERO, Cuba -- Should Juan Miguel Gonzalez ever come back to the concrete ponds, palm trees and plastic flamingos at Josone Park, where he has worked for the past 11 years, his cashier's job will be waiting for him.

But even his closest co-workers at the 20-acre government picnic and recreation area in this seaside resort wonder if that day will ever arrive or whether Gonzalez's life will ever return to normal.

"If he does come back, it'll take a long time and people here will be bothering him with a lot of questions," said Miguel Ortega, another cashier.

Like Elian, Gonzalez's 6-year-old son whose rescue from the waters off Florida in November sparked an international immigration drama between the United States and Cuba, Gonzalez has been thrust from obscurity to front-page news.

Among his Florida relatives and the vocal leaders of the Cuban-American community in Miami, Gonzalez has been described as a detached, uncaring parent, a fearful puppet of Fidel Castro's Communist regime, and, in some circles, as an abusive father.

But Gonzalez's friends and family in Varadero and in his hometown of Cardenas, a few miles to the east, describe a much different man: devoted, intelligent, hardworking and, more recently, obsessively worried about his son.

They say that if the 31-year-old Gonzalez has changed at all, it's that he appears more somber in the face of endless scrutiny about his life, his family and his sincerity.

"I see the suffering on his face," said Maria del Carmen Soblon, a curator at the Cardenas municipal museum, which has dedicated a front hall to petitions, photos and poems written about Elian. "The people in Miami couldn't have known who they would be dealing with, but he has maintained himself in a dignified way. He's very capable, and he's being honest when he says he wants to stay in Cuba."

In interviews with Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Havana last year, Gonzalez said he wanted to remain in Cuba with his son to be close to the few relatives who have stayed here.

After the first meeting with Gonzalez at his home Dec. 13, Silma L. Dimmel, the chief INS officer stationed in Cuba, concluded that Elian "has a very loving set of grandparents and father" and that Gonzalez was very much involved in the boy's life.

Even as his relatives boarded U.S.-bound rafts, boats and airplanes to escape an authoritarian government, Gonzalez, the eldest son of an Interior Ministry police officer, grounded himself in Cuba's revolutionary structure.

He signed up for the Communist Party at a young age and went to a special government school in order to land a coveted job in Varadero's burgeoning tourism industry. At Josone Park, he earned more than $10 a month in salary and tips.

He married his childhood sweetheart, Elizabet Brotons, and they built a house in Cardenas, a single-story concrete dwelling next to his parents.

After several miscarriages, the couple divorced childless in 1991, but Gonzalez told the INS, according to a transcript, that they continued to see each other "because we wanted to have a child together." They succeeded in December 1993 with the birth of Elian, a name that combines the beginning of her name and the end of his. Although Cuban divorce laws required Gonzalez to pay Brotons $3 a month, he paid $5, according to INS documents, and both parents and grandparents shared in caretaker duties.

Gonzalez bought his son a parrot and attended school meetings. He taught Elian karate and how to ride a bicycle. On weekends, they rode a shuttle bus to Josone Park, where Gonzalez taught Elian how to swim.

Gonzalez hasn't been back to work at Josone Park since late November, when he found out that Brotons left Cuba unexpectedly with a boyfriend and had taken Elian with her. She drowned when the smuggler's boat sank, leaving Elian floating in an inner tube until he was rescued by fishermen on Thanksgiving Day in the Florida Straits.

Gonzalez told INS officials that even before the boy was found, he called his uncle Lazaro Gonzalez to see whether he knew Elian's whereabouts. He also checked with Cuban authorities and collected copies of legal documents in case he had to prove that Elian is his son.

On Nov. 25, Gonzalez received a call from a Miami hospital about Elian, who had given doctors his Cuban address and phone number. Gonzalez contends that he then told his Miami relatives that he wanted the boy brought back to Cuba.

That was the beginning of a custody battle that has ripped apart an extended family that once shared vacations together in Cuba.

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