- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2000

MIAMI The South Florida relatives of Elian Gonzalez Thursday won a temporary reprieve in the custody battle to keep the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor from being returned to his Cuban father.
The temporary stay issued Thursday by a federal appeals court in Atlanta puts off until at least Friday the forced transfer of the boy from his relatives here to the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, currently waiting to reclaim his son in suburban Washington.
While the stay order only requires that Elian Gonzalez not leave the country while it is in effect, Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service officials Thursday indicated that there would be no move to take the boy into custody while federal lawyers prepare a response due at 9:30 Friday morning.
News of the order came down at 3 p.m., an hour after the deadline set by Attorney General Janet Reno to surrender the boy had passed without action at the Little Havana home where the boy has been staying since his rescue from the sea Thanksgiving Day.
The stay brought cheers from the thousands of Cuban-Americans who thronged the neighborhood streets during the day, in a noisy but peaceful demonstration against sending Elian back to Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's great-uncle who has waged a bitter battle with Juan Miguel over the youngster's fate, could be seen slapping backs and flashing the victory sign.
The audience was a large group of well-wishers who gathered at the barricades set up near the house during the tense, humid day.
Many in the crowd of more than a thousand said they had been energized by a video clip of the boy broadcast first on a Spanish-language television station here. It was taken by his Miami relatives hours after a Wednesday night meeting with Miss Reno that failed to resolve the impasse.
"I don't want to go to Cuba, papa," an animated Elian said, seated on a red bedspread in the Little Havana home. "I want to stay here."
But the legal delay and the release of the video brought angry reactions from Gregory Craig, the father's Washington attorney, who accused Lazaro Gonzalez of breaking the law and using his grand-nephew.
"Not only have these relatives broken the laws, they have emotionally damaged and exploited this wonderful little boy," Mr. Craig said.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who has expressed growing bitterness with his Miami relatives as the legal and political battle has dragged on, offered his own reaction, making an obscene gesture to protesters outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington on a visit there Thursday.
Miss Reno, a Miami native who made an extraordinary personal journey here Wednesday to try to secure the peaceful transfer of the boy, said at a noon news conference that the Miami relatives "must abide by the rule of law."
But she added: "We have the authority to take action. But responsible authority means not only knowing when to take action, but how and when to take that action."
President Clinton, speaking Thursday to a group of newspaper editors in Washington, contended he had "done everything I could to stay out of it, to avoid politicizing" a custody case that has inflamed this city and sparked a battle of wills between Mr. Castro and the anti-Castro exiles in Miami.
"But I do believe that it is our responsibility to uphold the law, and we are doing that," the president said.
Miss Reno left Miami without speaking to the press after the deadline passed, without the boy in hand, and with the South Florida relatives still demanding a private meeting with the father before they would consider surrendering Elian.
The federal government did win on another legal front when a Florida family court threw out Lazaro Gonzalez's appeal to secure permanent custody of the child, whom his father says he wants to take home to Cuba to raise.
Family representatives here say Miss Reno's attempt at personal diplomacy failed because they felt she had not come for a genuine discussion of potential compromises.
Miss Reno and INS Commissioner Doris A. Meissner offered the family two options: Fly to Washington for a family summit that would include surrendering the boy, or permit federal agents to come to the Little Havana house and remove him, by force if necessary.
"They didn't listen to our side. They didn't care," said family spokesman Armando Gutierrez of the Wednesday night meeting. "Gregory Craig vetoed our proposals, and Gregory Craig is running the government of the United States."
He defended the video of Elian Gonzalez, saying the child had often expressed such sentiments. Elian Gonzalez "knows what happened to him, knows why he's here, knows that his mother died and why," Mr. Gutierrez said.
"He sincerely does not want to go back."
Elian's mother, Juan Miguel Gonzalez's ex-wife, drowned along with 10 others in the ill-fated attempt to flee Cuba. Her son was one of just three survivors of the incident, a circumstance that is regarded as a miracle by many in Miami's devoutly Roman Catholic Cuban-American community.
But the release of the video also prompted much criticism here, with many saying the boy seemed prompted by adults and his remarks scripted. Miss Reno proved highly unpopular in the crowd that swelled into the thousands as the day wore on.
New arrivals at the site were offered a petition to sign calling for her resignation. A popular chant heard during the day invited Mr. Castro to take Miss Reno to Cuba instead of the boy.
After a day of rising tension and saturation news coverage, the 2 p.m. deadline passed at the Little Havana street not with a bang or a whimper, but with a pop star.
Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan was the prime speaker at a press conference that began nervously just after the hour was reached, with Lazaro Gonzalez, Cuban-American community leaders, and the mayors of Miami and Miami-Dade County ranged behind her.
"We don't understand why this family who has been guarding the boy all this time is being compelled to betray his trust," said Miss Estefan, who also expressed sympathy for Juan Miguel Gonzalez.
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo praised the boisterous but orderly crowd for heeding pleas to avoid violence as the deadline day wore on.
"The only winner if things turn violent is Fidel Castro," he said. Later, Miss Estefan, Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia and his wife, and a number of local politicians and religious leaders formed a giant circle, praying the rosary in Spanish and waiting for the federal action that never came.
Jerry Seper reported from Washington.

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