- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2000

MIAMI The Clinton administration yesterday said it would turn over 6-year-old shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez to his father as soon as possible, and yesterday granted the man permission to travel from Cuba to the United States for the exchange.

The State Department yesterday approved visas for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, his wife Elian's stepmother and their infant son along with a cousin, his pediatrician and kindergarten teacher. Visas for the six could be issued as early as today.

The announcement clears the way for Mr. Gonzalez to visit the United States for the first time since his son was rescued off the coast of southern Florida more than four months ago.

Yesterday, immigration officials dropped a threat to revoke Elian's legal status. Justice Department officials were working with attorneys for Elian's Miami relatives on a plan for the handover, a Justice Department official told the Associated Press.

Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman Maria Cardona said yesterday that once Elian's father had assumed custody for the boy, there was no legal reason for Elian to remain in the United States.

"If the father comes to the United States, it is our intention to turn over the child [to the father], no matter what the family signs," she said.

The boy has been at the center of an international custody battle since being rescued off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving after spending 50 hours alone on an inner tube. His mother and 10 others died in their attempt to flee Cuba. Since then, Elian has been in the custody of his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez.

Until yesterday, the INS had demanded that Elian's Miami relatives sign a document agreeing to give up custody of the child once the court proceedings were over, or the INS would revoke Elian's permission to stay with the family.

But with Elian's father making preparations to come to the United States, the issue is now moot, said Ms. Cardona.

"The focus of the talks have shifted from an immediate revocation of parole tomorrow morning to a transfer of parole from Lazaro Gonzalez to Juan Miguel effective as soon as Juan Miguel gets to the United States," Ms. Cardona said.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family would stay at the home of Cuba's chief diplomat in Washington, Fernando Remirez, who lives in an upscale suburban Maryland neighborhood. Mr. Remirez, his wife and two children will vacate the house to make room for the visitors from Cuba.

A government official who requested anonymity said there is a possibility that Juan Miguel Gonzalez will travel from Washington to Miami to pick up his son but not necessarily to the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, the great-uncle with whom Elian has been staying.

Lazaro Gonzalez said last night, "If the father comes or not we don't know, but he is welcome here. Don't ever doubt the Gonzalez family has their door open for their family"

However, Robert Wallis, the Immigration Service's director for the Miami district, said late yesterday that the transfer of temporary custody "does not mean that the child will be immediately removed from the home of the great-uncle. Instead it is our hope to begin a smooth and orderly process that will create as little disruption as possible to Elian."

A lawyer for the Miami relatives, Kendall Coffey, said the family will propose to the government today that three independent child psychologists be appointed to examine Elian and determine if it would be best for him to remain in the United States or be sent back to Cuba.

The boy's Miami relatives have said they will abide by any government ruling, insisting only that the transition take Elian's psychological well-being into account.

Over the weekend, attorneys for the family accused the father of "abuse" and "cruelty" toward the boy, but the INS said it had not seen substantive evidence to that effect.

Cuban President Fidel Castro had proposed that Elian's father travel with a 27-person entourage, including Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, 12 of Elian's classmates, several psychologists, doctors and teachers, to help integrate Elian back into Cuban society.

In Havana yesterday, Mr. Castro said the group could be ready to leave for the United States as soon as today if the visas are granted and U.S. authorities give the father assurances that they will give him custody of his son.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez joined President Fidel Castro and about 3,000 university students from across Latin America and the Caribbean at a patriotic rally to inaugurate a new "anti-imperialist" square opposite the U.S. diplomatic mission.

Meanwhile, 100 protesters outside the relatives' Little Havana home practiced forming a human chain and vowed they would stop at nothing to keep the boy from returning to Cuba.

"They would have to go over the bodies of all of us Cubans who are here," said Maria Gonzalez, 70, who is not related to the boy. "They would have to kill us all."

Asked if the INS is worried about provoking a confrontation with Cuban-Americans who say that Elian should be allowed to stay in the United States, Ms. Cardona said it was in everyone's best interest that this matter is resolved peacefully.

"It would behoove the family to cooperate if they do not want to cause further trauma to the child," she said.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, the leader of the Democracy Movement, which has threatened massive civil disobedience if "Elian's civil rights are violated," took a conciliatory tone yesterday. He said Cuban-Americans would abide by the family's wishes.

Standing in front of the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, Mr. Saul Sanchez said the community is "tense," but "Elian's troops" take their marching orders from the family.

He said that Elian does not want to return to Cuba and has said so many times, adding that if a family court were to investigate Juan Miguel Gonzalez's background, "it might have to seriously consider how he treated the child."

He said the family waited so long to make the charges because it wants to reconcile with Elian's father and do what is in the best interests of the child.

Miami Mayor Joe Carollo said yesterday that he expects the city to remain calm no matter what happens, noting that Mr. Castro is the only one who "wins" if Miami erupts in violence over this situation.

While Elian played with his new pet rabbit in his back yard yesterday, a few blocks away, Milagros Cruz Cano, a blind democracy activist who was deported from Cuba in October 1999, was in the 15th day of a water-and-Gatorade fast.

Sitting in a tent in front of the anti-Castro organization Alpha 66, she said she was fasting to draw attention to the fact that the Cuban government will not allow her 9-year-old daughter to come to the United States.

"It is my daughter or death," said Mrs. Cruz Cano.

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