- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 1999

U.S. officials warned Cuba not to harm diplomats at the U.S. Mission in Havana where bleachers were being constructed yesterday for more demonstrations aimed at pressuring the United States to return a shipwrecked Cuban child.

The White House said the United States would not give in to the Cuban government-sponsored protests over the fate of the child whose mother died on a clandestine trip to Miami and U.S. courts would decide his fate.

Elian Gonzalez, 5, was pulled from the sea Nov. 25 and placed with relatives in Miami’s influential Cuban-exile community who want to prevent the child’s return to his father in Cuba.

Several thousand protesters crammed onto bleachers last night outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, chanting political slogans, waving Cuban flags and reciting poems dedicated to Elian. A similar, but smaller protest was held outside the mission the evening before.

“The main thing is the child,” Vicki Huddleston, chief of the American mission, told reporters. “I have two children, and as a mother you want to see the best for the child.”

President Fidel Castro stepped up the pressure yesterday by attending a birthday party for the child while government television broadcast the boy’s father and grandparents singing to him over the telephone.

“I sent you lot of little kisses so you have a happy birthday,” Juan Miguel Gonzalez told his son Elian after he and the boy’s four grandparents, best friend and teacher sang him a Cuban birthday song into the speaker phone.

“Are you coming back soon?” the father asked.

“Yes,” said a little voice on the other end. “Tell [my classmates] to take care of my things.”

One of the grandmothers broke down in tears.

Back in Miami, a dozen U.S. children in school uniforms and Santa Claus caps brought Elian gifts and sang Christmas carols in English and Spanish yesterday. Wishing Elian a happy birthday, they brought him a red bicycle, a baseball ball, glove and bat.

Anti-Castro groups and politicians in Miami have determined to keep the child in America, in part as a symbol of their rejection of communism. This stance has infuriated Mr. Castro who demanded the child’s return by today or else face huge protests in Cuba.

“It would be political suicide and harm the reputation of the United States” not to send the child back, Mr. Castro said, calling his demand “wise advice” not an ultimatum. “I am appealing to their intelligence.”

“We take a dim view of the kind of threats that Castro has made,” said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

“We take the safety of our diplomats and American personnel very seriously, and we expect Cuba to live up to the obligations they’ve undertaken to keep those Americans safe.”

Asked about whether the child would stay with his relatives in the United States, or be returned to his father in Cuba, Mr. Lockhart said:

“Obviously, this case, as we’ve discussed, is one that may eventually end up in court, but is, you know, for right at this moment an immigration matter.”

Hundreds of grandmothers marched in Cardenas, a two-hour drive east of Havana, demanding the child’s return the latest in a mounting series of government-sponsored demonstrations.

“He’s continued to adjust very well to life in the U.S.,” said Spencer Eig, attorney for the boy’s relatives in Miami. He said that Elian’s great-aunt and great-uncle had no plans to file for permanent custody or adopt the child.

“It has been our first hope that we can resolve this inside the family and outside the court in Elian’s best interest,” said Mr. Eig.

In Miami over the weekend, Elian’s relatives and other anti-Castro Cuban exiles displayed the child amidst a cornucopia of toys rarely seen in Cuba and sporting a T-shirt printed with the name of the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation.

Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon appealed in a letter to governments around the world for support in efforts to bring the child home.

“Once again the United States government has violated the basic principles of law and respect for human dignity thus insulting the child’s father, a modest Cuban worker, and his grandparents,” Mr. Alarcon wrote.

“Elian’s father and his grandparents’ right to demand his immediate return to the home and family from which he was illegally snatched is not negotiable,” the letter said.

Peter Hakim, head of the InterAmerican Dialogue, a research group in Washington, said that the child has become a pawn in the 40-year-old political struggle between Mr. Castro and the United States.

“It seems that under almost any rules of the game the kid should be returned,” said Mr. Hakim yesterday. “I can’t imagine any situation where he would not.

“At the same time, the Cubans are making it as hard as possible for the Americans to do it. Both sides have upped the ante hoping to make it political. The Cuban-Americans are also making it difficult to find a solution. This is deliberate.”

Mr. Hakim said there is some possibility that the dispute could spill over into a whole range of other Cuban-American issues such as agreements on immigration, return of raft people, charter flights and drug cooperation.

Even though almost all of those agreements benefit both sides, previous U.S.-Cuban disputes have spun out of control and led to mass illegal migration, canceling of family visits and other disruptions.

Thirteen persons were aboard the small boat that took Elian, his mother and her boyfriend to Miami, the U.S. Coast Guard reported. Only three survived the sinking.

The boy’s 31-year-old father says the child was taken out of the country without his knowledge.

According to most legal experts, a child should be given to his closest biological relative, a parent or grandparents. But the law also allows any Cuban who reaches American soil the right to stay in the United States.

c This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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