Attorney General Janet Reno said she intends to hand over Elian Gonzalez to his father this week for a return to Cuba, and said she anticipates the boy and his father would remain in this country until a legal battle over custody is concluded, but she offered no assurances.
Meanwhile, Eric Holder, the deputy attorney general who has taken a particularly harsh line in the controversy, said the government “will do what is necessary” to reunite Elian Gonzalez with his father soon.
NBC News reported that Mr. Gonzalez’s family members, including his mother, have been taken to a compound in Havana, presumably as a precaution against the father’s defecting while in the United States. The president of Cuba’s National Assembly, asked about this yesterday on ABC-TV, dismissed the report as “rhetoric” but avoided giving a direct answer to the question.
Both Miss Reno and Mr. Holder made the rounds of talk shows yesterday. Interviewed on ABC’s “This Week,” Miss Reno said Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, has “already indicated that he would stay [in the United States] if he could have the child turned over in a thoughtful, careful way.
“We’re trying to work through those issues to see that that happens,” she said.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the father’s attorney, Gregory Craig, said his client expressed a willingness to stay in the United States if he got adequate support for an appeals process Mr. Craig believes could last eight to 10 months.
As for when Mr. Gonzalez and Elian will be reunited, Miss Reno said, “I think we must get this resolved as soon as possible… . We’re going to proceed this week to make sure that this little boy has a chance to be with his father.”
For that to happen, Elian will have to be surrendered by or taken away from some relatives in Miami’s Little Havana, who have been caring for him since he was rescued near the South Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day. His mother drowned when a boat in which she, Elian and others fleeing Cuba capsized during a storm. Elian was found floating in an inner tube by two fishermen, who got to meet with the boy’s father yesterday in the Washington office of his attorney, Mr. Craig.
The boy’s Miami relatives like most Cuban-Americans in that city want Elian to remain in the United States, and they are seeking custody of him. But his father, who came to this country Thursday with his current wife and their infant, wants to reclaim his son and wants to return him to Cuba.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service and Miss Reno say Elian belongs with his father.
There have been concerns law enforcement agents might have to use force to retrieve Elian, given the crowds of Cuban-American demonstrators who oppose returning him to Cuba. The Cuban exiles who fled Fidel Castro’s communist tyranny say it’s wrong to send Elian back to that dictatorship, when his mother died trying to get him out of there.
Justice Department officials yesterday reiterated that no plans to use force have been presented or approved.
“But it’s obviously one of the things we will have to consider” if the Miami relatives refuse to give him up, Mr. Holder acknowledged on NBC.
He added: “We don’t expect anything like that to happen. We will do what is necessary to reunite father and son, however.”
On ABC, Spencer Eig, a lawyer for the Miami relatives, said the family would not surrender the child but would not resist if federal authorities came to get him.
“They’ll unlock the door and stand back. They’ll stand back, they’ll cry, and their hearts will break,” he said.
On CNN’s “Late Edition,” Linda Osberg-Braun, another attorney for the family, said “we cannot control the crowds” likely to be gathered near the Miami home of Elian’s great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, where Elian has lived for more than four months.
On NBC, “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert asked Mr. Holder how he can reconcile sending Elian back to a country “our own State Department says is one of the most repressive and abusive in the world: no freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, no access to the Internet, children sent into prostitution.”
Mr. Holder replied: “The freedom we want to allow him is the freedom to be with his father. His father raised him in … a caring and sensitive way for six years.”
Mr. Holder says he agrees Cuba “is not a place, certainly, where every child would want to be raised.
“Yet, it’s where his father wants to take him. His father, I think, can protect him,” said the senior Justice official.
But lawyers for Elian’s Miami relatives strongly denounced such claims. They said the Cuban government will take possession of Elian, as soon as he returns to his homeland.
On ABC, Miss Reno argued that Elian’s father “should not be punished because of peoples’ different political beliefs.”
The Justice Department has recruited three mental health specialists to try to facilitate a peaceful transfer of custody from his Miami relatives to his father.
“We have psychologists who are speaking with Elian’s father today” in preparation for the transfer of custody, Mr. Holder said yesterday on “Meet the Press.”
“Psychologists will be hopefully speaking with the relatives in Miami” today , “and, at that point, we’ll make a determination as to when we will actually issue the necessary orders to reunite father and son,” he added.
In Miami, the relatives fighting to keep the Cuban boy in the United States would not offer a firm commitment to meet today with the two psychiatrists and one psychologist appointed by the government to smooth Elian’s return to his father.
Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian’s great-uncle and temporary custodian, asked in a letter to Miss Reno that the meeting “be scheduled on a tentative basis” because his daughter, Marisleysis Gonzalez, who reportedly has become almost a surrogate mother to Elian, was in the hospital.
Miss Gonzalez, 21, has been hospitalized several times in recent weeks for exhaustion. The family, her father said, wanted her to be part of the discussion.
As for conditions Elian’s father is making for remaining in this country throughout the custody fight, his lawyer said Juan Miguel Gonzalez wants to have more friends, classmates or psychologists from Cuba to be in the United States during the appeals to provide support for his son.
Miss Reno, who also appeared on CNN’s “Late Edition,” says she does not agree with Mr. Craig that it “will take eight or 10 months” for the appeals process to play out.