- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

MIAMI Lawyers in the custody battle over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez resume negotiations today with less than 24 hours to resolve the boy's future before the latest Clinton administration deadline.

President Fidel Castro said yesterday in Havana Elian's father was willing to travel alone to the United States this morning if U.S. officials promise to turn over the boy to him and let them return to Cuba right away.

Failing that, visas would be sought for the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, and an entourage of more than 30 people to leave for the United States as early as tomorrow to try to get Elian back, Mr. Castro said yesterday during a live appearance on national television.

The Justice Department has said it will revoke custody over Elian from his Miami relatives at 9 a.m. tomorrow if the family has not committed to surrender the boy if they lose the next step in the legal battle in May.

Both sides took to the morning talk shows yesterday to say why the boy should remain in the United States or go home to his father.

"The courts and the law are not being followed by the Clinton administration," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and a vehement opponent of Cuba's Communist government, on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"The humane thing to do is send the child back to his father," countered Rep. Jose E. Serrano, New York Democrat, on the same show. Invoking "family values," he said he is "bitter and angry" that Vice President Al Gore called for giving Elian permanent residency in the United States.

Walter Polovchak, once known as the "littlest defector" for refusing to go home to Ukraine with his parents when he was just 12, came to Miami yesterday to lend his support and sympathy to Elian's relatives.

Mr. Polovchak, now an office manager in Chicago with a 6-year-old son of his own, said that while Elian may not understand the legal battle his perspective on American life is probably clear enough for him to have an opinion about his fate.

"Even a 6-year-old will realize you don't have to stand in line for food, that even dogs have aisles for food in the supermarket in America," said Mr. Polovchak, whose visit was financed by an unidentified California doctor.

President Clinton said yesterday he believed everyone involved was concerned about Elian's best interests.

That "gives me hope we can find a principled resolution that is not just a train wreck for the child, a train wreck for the rule of law or a train wreck for all concerned," he said on Air Force One en route to a fund-raiser in Las Vegas.

Commentator George Will, on ABC's "This Week," said the hundreds of Cuban-Americans who have threatened to block any attempt to repatriate Elian were justified.

Citing Martin Luther King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," which establishes the conditions under which civil disobedience is appropriate, he said Cuban-Americans should "pack the jails of South Florida, if necessary."

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and 22 other area mayors said last week that local police would not participate in any attempt to seize Elian from the modest Little Havana home where he is living.

Accusing the Clinton administration of "strong-arm" tactics, he said the blame for any civil unrest would rest on Attorney General Janet Reno and the president.

So far the Miami family of Lazaro Gonzalez, which has temporary custody of Elian, has been adamant that it will not voluntarily surrender him but says it will not interfere if federal officers come to take him.

The Clinton administration clearly hopes to avoid sending federal officers through a blockade of Cuban-American protesters who have vowed to die to keep Elian in the United States.

The negotiations broke off Thursday with the family refusing to relinquish custody even if Elian's father comes from Cuba to press his case. Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's great-uncle, did say he would turn over the boy to his father if independent psychologists and Elian himself agreed.

That is considered unlikely. Two psychologists, one supplied by ABC Television for an interview with Diane Sawyer, and a Miami nun and trained psychologist who met the boy, have said Elian has formed an important bond with his cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, who has become the boy's surrogate mother.

Lawyers representing the Miami family charged over the weekend that Elian's father is "abusive" and that, under the direction of the Cuban government, he has told Elian that his mother is alive and waiting for him in Cardenas, Cuba.

"That is a true statement… . He did say that his mother is waiting for him and he should come back to Cardenas, where she was. That is cruel," said Linda Osberg-Braun, a lawyer for the Miami relatives, on CBS' "Face the Nation" yesterday.

In the ABC interview aired last week, one of the saddest moments came when Elian said that his mother might be alive in Miami, but suffering from amnesia. Gently prodded by his cousin, he admitted he knew she was dead.

Gregory Craig, the lawyer representing Elian's father, called suggestions that his client was an unfit parent ill-timed and "outrageous" and said Mr. Gonzalez would "be there tomorrow" if he were allowed to take custody.

Mr. Craig has applied for visas for the father, stepmother, half-brother and a favorite cousin of Elian's to come to the United States.

White House Chief of Staff John Podesta told CBS the father had been interviewed twice in Cuba by the INS and there was as yet "no indication that [he] is an unfit parent… . We expect that he'll ask for a visa, and he'll come here, and he'll be able to make his case."

Neither side in the debate over Elian appears capable of hearing the other sides' argument.

The federal government, backed by federal courts, argues that Miss Reno has the sole authority to determine Elian's immigration status. She has determined that Elian's father, who has made clear his desire that the boy be returned to Cuba, is the only individual who can speak for the child.

That is the issue to be determined in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has scheduled oral arguments for the week of May 8.

The Miami family insists that immigration law accords "any alien" the right to an asylum hearing. There is no provision in the law that says minors are ineligible.

Most Cuban-Americans who would like to see the issue settled in the Florida family court system object that Elian has still "not had his day in court." That court is bound only by "the best interests of the child."

"President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had their day in court and all the appeals he needed. Why won't he give this little angel his chance," said Olga Rodriguez, a Cuban-American from Homestead, Fla.

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