- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

MIAMI The Clinton administration said yesterday it will transfer Elian Gonzalez to his Cuban father as soon as a federal appeals court clears the way, ignoring appeals for a "timeout" during Holy Week and today's politically sensitive anniversary of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, speaking yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press," signaled that the Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service were prepared to seize the boy from the home of his South Florida relatives as soon as the legal hurdle is cleared.

"Once the [federal appeals court] has ruled, I think the government is prepared to effectuate a return of Elian to the custody of his father, where he belongs," Mr. Podesta said.

The boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, remains in Washington awaiting a reunion with his son promised by Attorney General Janet Reno. In his first U.S. interview, broadcast last night on CBS' "60 Minutes," he again pleaded for his son and harshly criticized his Miami relatives in what has become an increasingly bitter family feud.

"He is suffering more here among [the Miami relatives] than he suffered at sea," said the father, who said Elian had told him on the telephone that he wanted to go home to Cuba.

Cuban-American demonstrators yesterday again thronged the streets outside the Little Havana bungalow where Elian Gonzalez is living. The boy was rescued from the sea after an attempt to flee Cuba that claimed the life of his mother Juan Miguel Gonzalez's ex-wife and 10 others.

Clutching narrow fronds after an outdoor Palm Sunday service at the site, many demonstrators recounted personal stories of expulsion from Cuba in the 1960s, the loss and sense of betrayal of the Bay of Pigs assault in which 200 exiles were killed and more than 1,000 jailed, and the frustrating aftermath with Fidel Castro still wielding absolute power nearly four decades later.

Elian Gonzalez again appeared briefly to chants and cheers from the crowd. Great-uncle Delfin Gonzalez visited the barricades and helped hand out bottled water to the crowd on a bright, sunny afternoon.

The calendar this week presents a minefield for Miss Reno as she tries to achieve a peaceful end to the 4 1/2-month-long stalemate.

Palm Sunday yesterday marked the beginning of Holy Week, and Lazaro Gonzalez, the great-uncle who has defied INS orders to surrender the boy to his father, has appealed to the government not to act during the week leading up to the Easter celebration.

This month also marks the 20th anniversary of the Mariel boat lift, a massive exodus of 125,000 Cubans to southern Florida, another milestone in the Cuban-American community's war with Mr. Castro.

"This is not a time for federal action," family attorney Spencer Eig said yesterday.

The Bay of Pigs invasion remains a searing memory for many here. A crowd of 500 gathered at a local airport Saturday to commemorate a new monument to the invasion a restored B-26 bomber like the ones used in 1961. The plane will be placed at a prominent downtown Miami site.

"It's important that [Mr. Castro] not win this one," said Maria Miller, who said her brother fought in the invasion.

But Mr. Podesta indicated yesterday that Lazaro Gonzalez's pleas for a Holy Week delay would not be heeded.

"I don't think the family has much standing to request that," he said.

The Clinton administration's handling of the custody dispute was attacked from two very different camps the Cuban government and congressional Republicans.

Fernando Remirez, Cuba's top diplomat to the United States and the host of Juan Miguel Gonzalez during his stay in Washington, said he was glad the U.S. government supported the father's rights but urged the administration to enforce its own decisions.

"The most important thing is that the government act quickly to stop the suffering, the exploitation, even the child abuse of this little boy," he said on CNN's "Late Edition" yesterday.

Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and John McCain of Arizona accused Miss Reno and the Justice Department of "mishandling" the case, allowing it to drag on for months after the INS determined in January that the boy should be given to his father.

Miss Reno let a Thursday-afternoon deadline pass last week without action in the face of a massive show of support by Cuban-Americans outside the Little Havana home.

The Justice Department said it had decided to wait for the appeals court in Atlanta to rule on an injunction sought by the family in the case but acknowledges it has the authority now to claim Elian Gonzalez from his great-uncle.

"For her to set a deadline and then to let it pass will only cause trouble in the future," Mr. McCain said.

• Joyce Price contributed to this report from Washington.

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