- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2000

The Clinton administration said yesterday that Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban refugee plucked from the Atlantic Ocean on Thanksgiving Day, will be returned to his father in Cuba within the next nine days.

The announcement prompted a protest outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) headquarters in Miami by hundreds of Cuban exiles, who said they will form a human chain around the house where Elian is staying with his great-aunts and great-uncles.

At a news conference in Miami, lawyers representing the boy's relatives in Florida said they had written to Mr. Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno asking for a full immigration hearing. They said they were prepared to go to federal and state courts if necessary to keep him in the United States.

Armando Gutierrez, a spokesman for Elian's Miami relatives, said the ruling was an affront to the memory of the boy's mother, who died while trying to flee with her son to the United States. "No one is listening to the mother's cry for Elian," he said.

Asked what the boy has been saying, Mr. Gutierrez said, "He cares for his father, but he would like his father to be here with him."

Initially, the Clinton administration said that U.S. immigration law gave the boy the right to remain in the United States while local courts decided who would have custody.

But as public passions flared on both sides of the Straits of Florida, the administration invoked a legal technicality that placed the boy's fate with U.S. immigration authorities instead of Florida's family courts.

Doris Meissner, commissioner of the INS, told reporters in Washington that the boy will be sent back to his father in Cardenas, Cuba, by Jan. 14.

She said the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, could come to Miami to pick him up or the relatives in Miami could accompany him to Havana. Mr. Gonzalez was not immediately available for comment.

Mrs. Meissner said it was best for Elian to return to Cuba.

"This little boy, who has been through so much, belongs with his father," she said. "INS has determined that Mr. Juan Gonzalez of Cuba has the sole legal authority to speak on behalf of his son, Elian, regarding Elian's immigration status in the United States."

President Clinton said the INS had reached the right decision, adding that he had promised to "do my best to keep this decision out of politics, and we have done that."

Mrs. Meissner said the INS had determined that Elian's father was expressing his "true wishes" when he said that he wanted the boy returned to Cuba, and he was not simply mouthing the wishes of the Cuban regime.

She said the decision was based on the "facts and the law." She made a plea for cooperation on all sides of the emotional issue.

Elian was attending classes for the second day at the Lincoln-Marti School in Miami when the INS announcement was made.

Among those protesting the decision in Miami was Sandy Cobas, 45, who left her job at a cigar factory to rally at the uncle's house after hearing about the decision on a Spanish-language radio station.

"It's all politics. [Cuban President Fidel] Castro wants him, and Clinton will let him go. He doesn't care," Miss Cobas said in an interview with the Associated Press.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart praised the INS for its handling of the case.

President Clinton "believes that [although] this was a difficult case for the INS, they acted appropriately, they gathered the facts in a very comprehensive way and applied the relevant rules and regulations and law appropriately," Mr. Lockhart said.

In Cuba, the news was greeted as a victory for Mr. Castro, who had made the boy's return a revolutionary crusade, but authorities warned that it may be too early for celebration.

U.S. news accounts "could lead to excessive optimism and even confusion in public opinion," said a government statement. It added: "The Cuban-American mafia and the far right in the Unites States Congress … will do anything to prevent the boy's return to Cuba."

After watching his mother and stepfather perish when their boat capsized in a failed attempt to escape from Cuba's communist regime, Elian survived two days tied to an inner tube. He was rescued off the coast of Florida by sport fishermen on Nov. 25.

Almost immediately, Elian became the subject of a tug of war between Cuban authorities, who orchestrated massive demonstrations demanding the boy's return to his father, and the Cuban-American community, which showered him with toys and insisted he be allowed to stay in the United States.

Cuban-Americans yesterday lashed out at the Clinton administration for "kowtowing to the Castro regime."

"It was Elian's mother's dying wish for her son to live in freedom and liberty in the U.S.," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican, who represents the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami. "This is unconscionable and flies in the face of humanitarian principles."

The decision could become a political liability in South Florida for Vice President Al Gore, who is campaigning to become the Democratic presidential nominee.

Mr. Gore, through a spokesman, blamed Mr. Castro for forcing a choice between the boy's freedom and being able to live with his father. Mr. Gore's opponent, Bill Bradley, said he would not "second guess" the wisdom of the INS.

Republican presidential candidates George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain called the decision a "mistake" and "tragedy," while Steve Forbes accused Mr. Clinton of caving in to Mr. Castro.

Calling the move "ham-handed" and "appeasement" of Mr. Castro, RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson offered to pay for Elian's family in Cuba to come to the United States so his future could be decided "on free soil."

Agustin Tamargo, a host on Miami's virulently anti-Castro Radio Mambi, said the Democratic Party would pay for the decision in November's election.

"I think it is horrible and shameful and a decision which we will come to regret," said Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat. "We are violating our own laws to satisfy Fidel Castro's demands and threats."

Mr. Menendez predicted "a negative reaction" in November elections, both in Florida and New Jersey, "for politicians who agree with the administration's view. People are mad."

The Cuban American National Foundation, the politically powerful organization that represents anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in exile, called the INS move a "tragedy."

"The Clinton administration wants us to think that Cuba is a normal country and this is just a little boy going home to his dad," said Jose Cardenas, CANF's Washington representative.

"The administration just wrote off Florida in the elections. Al Gore might as well not even show up in Florida."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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