MIAMI Elian Gonzalez’s Florida relatives yesterday delayed but could not deflect federal officials determined to return the 6-year-old boy to his father and clear the way for his return to Cuba.
Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian’s great-uncle and patriarch of the Miami family that has cared for him since his rescue from the sea Thanksgiving Day, met last night with three mental health professionals dispatched by Attorney General Janet Reno.
Their mandate: to craft a plan to reunite Elian Gonzalez with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, probably by the end of this week.
The hourlong private meeting, at Miami’s Mercy Hospital, took place only after the two psychiatrists and a psychologist had cooled their heels for three hours yesterday afternoon at a second Miami hospital, where the meeting was originally to take place.
Lazaro Gonzalez, who is battling the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for permanent custody of the boy, asked that the meeting be switched to the hospital where his 21-year-old daughter, Marisleysis, has been hospitalized since Saturday for exhaustion. Elian was at the hospital but did not join in the meeting with the psychiatrists and psychologist.
The boy, whose mother Juan Miguel Gonzalez’s ex-wife and 10 others died in their attempt to flee Fidel Castro’s Cuba by boat, has become a rallying point for this city’s Cuban-American community.
Thousands of people gathered last night a few blocks from the great-uncle’s home and marched toward it, praying for Elian and criticizing federal officials for their handling of the case. Police closed about 30 city blocks to traffic.
But the legal and political maneuvering surrounding the boy’s fate appears to be nearing an end.
“If this is the family’s idea of a delaying tactic, it won’t work,” one Justice Department official said yesterday.
By all accounts, Elian has grown close to Marisleysis Gonzalez in the months since his rescue. Mercy Hospital officials said she did not take part in last night’s meeting, despite the site shift.
Cuban-American community leaders organized a major candlelight vigil last night in support of the boy, but the thin daytime crowd outside the now-familiar white bungalow in the city’s Little Havana section appeared far from boisterous.
At one point, a squadron of five gray military helicopters flew directly over the neighborhood, prompting a little alarm and much gallows humor about the Clinton administration’s plans to take the boy from his South Florida relatives.
Neither side planned a statement after yesterday’s meeting, but INS officials say the three mental health experts planned an immediate return to Washington to brief Miss Reno.
An INS letter setting out the terms of the transfer would then be issued, with federal officials saying Elian could be back with his father, now staying in the Bethesda, Md., home of Cuba’s top diplomat here, by the end of the week.
Both sides in the custody dispute continued to maneuver as the endgame approached.
Attorneys for the Miami family last night were completing an appeal of the federal judge’s ruling upholding the INS decision transferring custody of the boy to his father. On a second front, the family will file briefs today in a Florida family court to have Lazaro Gonzalez declared his great-nephew’s legal guardian.
Legal experts rate both challenges as long shots, and the Justice Department yesterday made public an order over the weekend by Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey expressing clear skepticism over the great-uncle’s claim to the boy.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Joe Carollo, mayor the city of Miami, fly to Washington today to appeal to Miss Reno for a 30-day transition period if the boy is to be transferred to his father. The two are also expected to ask Miss Reno to help set up a meeting between Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his Miami relatives to discuss the case something the father has steadfastly refused to do.
Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said federal officials were working hard for a smooth transition for the boy to his father.
“We would hope to be able to set something up so that Elian would not have to be carried through a throng of people in Miami that have been around that house,” he said in an interview on CBS.
Mr. Holder talked of staging the transfer at a “neutral site,” though it is not clear if Juan Miguel Gonzalez is prepared to travel here to claim his son.
And uncertainty continued over whether Juan Miguel Gonzalez would remain in the United States while legal appeals continue in the case. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said yesterday that the “father himself would decide when to return to Cuba.”
But Cuban-Americans here are openly skeptical of the father’s independence from Mr. Castro’s control and note that neither the father nor the Clinton administration has given a hard and fast promise that the father and son will not flee immediately after their prospective reunion.
“As of yet, the government has provided no written assurance that Elian will be able to stay pending his appeal,” family attorney Roger Bernstein said yesterday.
Mr. Carollo, visiting the Little Havana neighborhood yesterday morning, predicted the community would be “passionate but peaceful” if Elian Gonzalez is taken from his Miami relatives in the next few days.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, a leader of the prominent anti-Castro Democracy Movement, has been taking steps in recent days to prepare his supporters for the worst.
“You’re not defeated when you struggle and lose,” he said yesterday. “You’re only defeated when you cease to struggle at all.”
In Bethesda yesterday, Juan Miguel Gonzalez spent most of the day indoors meeting with several persons, including Washington lawyer Michael Maggio, who specializes in immigration law.
After an hourlong meeting, Mr. Maggio emerged from the Cuban diplomat’s home and told reporters Elian’s father was growing more impatient with reuniting with his son and that he hopes to see Elian by the end of this week.
“He is looking for some closure,” Mr. Maggio said as he stood outside the home where Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family are staying. “He is a profoundly sad man who is deeply concerned for his son. This is a man who fights back tears when he talks about Elian.”
Jerry Seper and Ellen Sorokin in Washington contributed to this report.