- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2000

MIAMI Attorney General Janet Reno last night failed to persuade the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez to give the 6-year-old boy back to his Cuban father after delivering a message warning them that, voluntarily or by force, they must surrender the boy.

In a hastily arranged trip, Miss Reno made a extraordinary personal plea to Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's great-uncle, to relinquish the boy to end the 4 and 1/2-month international custody dispute.

But the three-hour meeting, at which Elian was also present, broke up inconclusively, with the relatives still insisting on a meeting here with the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, now waiting for his son in the company of Cuban diplomats in Bethesda.

"There's been no agreement," said Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, a confidante of the Gonzalez family in Miami, whose Miami Beach residence served as the site for the charged meeting. She also said U.S. officials at the meeting had not set a deadline for action or delivered a widely anticipated letter ordering the custody transfer.

Miss Reno was "very respectful and the family was very honest with her," said Sister O'Laughlin, president of Miami's Barry University.

Miss Reno, a Miami native, touched down here yesterday evening to confront the South Florida relatives. Despite the impasse, Justice Department officials say that custody transfer to an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent still could come as early as this morning.

Neither Miss Reno nor family members spoke to a massive press horde immediately after the meeting.

Sister O'Laughlin said lawyers for the Justice Department and the Miami relatives planned a late telephone conference call last night to discuss the next steps. But with the U.S. relatives waging a last-ditch legal battle to block the custody transfer, federal officials said they were fully prepared to order the hand-over if a deal could not be struck.

While the boy's father remained in Washington with Cuban government officials by his side, Miss Reno, the boy's Miami family and their lawyers talked into the night at the Miami Beach Catholic university. But no resolution was struck.

With the relatives waging a last-ditch legal battle to block the transfer, federal officials said they were fully prepared to order the hand-over if a deal was not struck.

The boy was rescued on Thanksgiving Day after a shipwreck took the life of his mother and 10 others fleeing the communist nation.

The fight over the boy's fate has taken on legal, political, moral, and even foreign-policy dimensions, with Fidel Castro and the Cuban government engaged in a bitter battle of words with the Cuban-American exile community across the Florida Straits.

The boy's father, a hotel worker in Cardenas, Cuba, has sought custody of his son following the death of his ex-wife, Elian's mother.

The federal government has argued that the son belongs with his surviving parent and immigration laws must be upheld. The Miami relatives and their local supporters say returning the boy to Cuba would rip him from a loving family here and condemn him to a life without civil rights or political freedoms in communist Cuba.

Leaves for Miami's police force have been canceled as the city braces against possible violent reactions to a hand-over of Elian to his father. Miami Mayor Joe Carollo predicted yesterday that the city would remain calm, whatever the outcome.

"The impression that some have tried to give about this city from this ordeal has been very unfair," Mr. Carollo said yesterday.

Miss Reno was greeted with jeers from about 50 protesters kept behind barriers about 30 yards from the electronic wrought-iron gate that protects the university residence of Sister O'Laughlin.

The nun, a confidante of the South Florida relatives and president of Miami's Barry University, offered her house as neutral site for the Reno meeting.

Justice Department officials in Washington yesterday said Miss Reno had hoped to secure the Miami relatives' voluntary agreement to surrender the boy. But, failing that, she was prepared to authorize the long-anticipated mandatory hand-over, tentatively set for today at 9 a.m. at the Opa-Locka military airport north of the city.

Among those waiting for her at the university compound just after 6 p.m. last night were Elian, his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, and cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez, who has been reported developing a close bond with the boy since his rescue.

Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner and a group of lawyers who have worked with the Miami relatives also attended the talks.

The attorney general's extraordinary trip to her hometown capped another day of public posturing and ferocious behind-the-scenes negotiating, which has become the norm in the lengthy international custody battle.

Just after midnight on Wednesday, Lazaro Gonzalez abruptly canceled a planned trip with his great-nephew to Washington to meet with Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the father who is also the son of Lazaro Gonzalez's late brother.

Spokesmen for the South Florida relatives said the boy himself balked at the trip, especially because cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez was too ill to make the trip.

They added that Lazaro Gonzalez also refused to go upon learning that Elian's father had demanded custody of his son in Washington before any discussions with his Miami relatives took place.

Gregory Craig, the high-powered Washington attorney representing the boy's father, said his client understood the immediate transfer to be the "essential condition" upon which he agreed to attend the meeting in the first place.

"Juan Miguel Gonzalez came to the United States seven days ago expecting to get immediate custody of his son," Mr. Craig said yesterday afternoon, speaking to reporters even as Miss Reno and Mrs. Meissner's Cessna Citation jet was on its way to Miami.

"Every day of delay does enormous damage to Elian," said Mr. Craig, one of Washington's highest-paid lawyers and a prime defender of President Clinton in the impeachment trial.

But Jorge Mas Santos, head of the powerful Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation, which tried to broker the Washington meeting along with Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, denied Mr. Craig's account of the proposed meeting.

"There were no preconditions," Mr. Mas Santos said.

In Bethesda, Md., Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who has been staying in the home of Cuba's top diplomat to the United States, told associates he was frustrated with the pace of the negotiations and with the abrupt cancellation of the meeting.

"He is going to simply ask now that the attorney general issue a court order and that the boy be returned immediately to him," said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former head of the National Council of Churches and a key adviser to the father.

Elian's day began with a car ride in the rain to Miami's Mercy Hospital to pick up Marisleysis Gonzalez, hospitalized once again for exhaustion and stress brought on by the custody fight.

Dressed in a green, hooded windbreaker and clutching a white feather, the boy emerged from the modest white bungalow in Miami's Little Havana section to cheers from the handful of demonstrators who have kept a steady vigil at the site.

The case has riveted the city. Elian's arrival at the Barry University compound, Miss Reno's rush-hour motorcade to the site, and the press conferences of the various principals in Miami and Washington were all covered live on local television.

News helicopters buzzed over the posh Miami Beach neighborhood where the Miami relatives spent the day, and a huge media caravan followed the family to the Barry University site.

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