- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2000

It appears rather likely the U.S. government will send 6-year-old Cuban boat-wreck survivor Elian Gonzalez back to the island ruled by Fidel Castro.

There are critical weaknesses in the way events have unfolded:

Elian's father has been emphatically pushing his claim for custody in the media and just as emphatically refusing to make the 100-or-so-mile journey to Florida to retrieve the boy. Most recently, the boy's grandmothers have said they would travel to Florida to bring Elian back.

The United States should under no condition allow either the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, or Mr. Castro to determine how or if Elian is to be returned to Cuba. It is in our interests and it would seem our right to demand that the father formally press his claim in the U.S. or at least come here to take custody.

The U.S. can facilitate and defray the costs of the father's trip here and can buffer him from the media and hostile crowds, as it does for federal witnesses and foreign officials. He can be flown in on government transport and ensconced in a safe location for a few days until he completes his business. Perhaps a diplomatic visa could insulate him from legal entanglements other than the custody issue.

But we are under no obligation to storm the home of the father's relatives to retrieve Elian for the father, and dispatch the boy without further ado back to the island like a misplaced package in the mail. That the father himself said in a TV interview last week that this course would be agreeable to him is in itself deeply troubling.

Any handover should be to the father, as claimant and custodian, in the presence of our authorities for these reasons:

(1) The father-son reunion may resolve misgivings about the father's motivations, or whether he has been pressured by Mr. Castro.

(2) It should resolve any lingering questions about the nature of the father's relationship with the son. The father has not helped in his obdurate refusal to come to Florida or by some of the intemperate language used in his interview with Chris Wallace last week on ABC News' "Nightline."

(3) The presence of the father, in an environment controlled by U.S. authorities, might muffle reaction in Miami's Cuban-American community. On the other hand, U.S. marshals seizing the boy in Little Havana probably would spark wide protest.

(4) Most important, the presence of the father should, given a positive and loving relationship with the son, go far to reduce any trauma the son might experience in being relocated again.

The little Cuban boy has already suffered shipwreck at sea, and witnessed the death of his mother and others. He has since been rather tossed about like a media volley ball for seven weeks. He needs a quiet, forgiving outcome, not more tumult and tribulation.

Yesterday, lawyers for Elian's Miami relatives filed a petition in federal court to block his return to Cuba. They also seek remedy of the procedures followed in his case by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

It still seems likelier than not that ultimately the federal courts will support the INS finding that the boy's place is with the father.

But because of the special circumstances of this case, procrastination is warranted and prudent: Fidel Castro's early and bombastic pre-emption of Cuban discussions to the point of threatening "war" raised the ante immediately by aggravating his longstanding antagonisms with the United States and with South Florida's Cuban-American community.

Only recently has the father, Mr. Gonzalez, become the primary Cuban spokesman for the return of his son. And his utterances display a firecracker disposition that raises further questions about him. For instance, in ruling out a trip to Miami, he told Chris Wallace he would "like to go down there with a rifle I don't know to get rid of how many people."

Is Mr. Gonzalez attempting to prejudice the deliberations of our legal system against his claim? If he were an American talking that way, even in the land of the free, local and federal officials would take a real careful look at him.

The suggestion of granting Elian U.S. citizenship was deplored Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" by Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly. He said citizenship cannot be "imposed," and that Elian "cannot, legally speaking" request it on his own, because of his age.

Supposing that to be so, consider: A person born in this country can as an adult if he has at least one grandparent born in Ireland claim Irish citizenship on his own. So even if Elian were sent back, it would seem the United States could still at least confer a special or reserved right to U.S. citizenship for him that he could invoke once he turns 18.

Under no circumstances should we be stampeded by Havana's noisy demands, and political and diplomatic ploys, to move in any haste. Seven weeks already have elapsed. But an error can involve regrets that last a lifetime.

To coin an axiom: If the devil presents a contract on someone's soul take your time, scrutinize it carefully, read the fine print, examine every angle and, for heaven's sake, look for loopholes.

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.

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