- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2000

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. Elian Gonzalez was reunited with his grandmothers yesterday at a "neutral site" that had to be arranged by the U.S. government because of the personal and political passions swirling around the 6-year-old Cuban boy.

Elian was driven to a nun's house in Miami Beach to see his grandmothers, who had flown in from Washington. The visit lasted about an hour and a half.

The grandmothers picked the boy up and were shaking as they hugged him and kissed him, said Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, who monitored the reunion while relatives waited in the next room. The grandmothers broke down crying after Elian walked out of the room, the nun said.

"It took him a little while to warm up, but after a little bit he became very animated," said Sister Peggy Albert, who also watched the reunion.

Elian has been in the middle of an international dispute and a power struggle among his relatives since he was found clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast Nov. 25. He had left Cuba with his mother, who died along with 10 other persons when their boat capsized.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has ordered him returned to his father in Cuba, but the boy's relatives in Miami are fighting the order in federal court so he can remain with them.

Mariela Quintana and Raquel Rodriguez had not seen their grandson since before he left Cuba. The grandmothers came to the United States last week to appeal to the American people and Congress to send the boy back to his father in Cuba.

In their time together yesterday, Elian and his grandmothers played with an Etch-a-Sketch and stuffed animals, and the women showed him a photo album and letters from his classmates in Cuba, Sister Albert said.

"They just came to him and they hugged him and they sat down at a table and they were seeing an album of pictures," said Elian's cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez, who brought Elian to the room.

The grandmothers did not comment as they left the house and were driven away to a helicopter. They later got on plane to Washington.

The grandmothers had also come to Miami on Monday, but they left without seeing Elian. The Miami relatives insisted that any reunion take place at their home in the Little Havana neighborhood, but the grandmothers said they were uncomfortable going there. Anti-Castro Cuban immigrants have been holding protests around the home.

After long negotiations, the Justice Department ordered Elian's relatives to bring him to the home of Sister O'Laughlin, president of Barry University, who has long been involved with helping immigrants. The Justice Department said it had the authority to do so under the arrangement letting the boy stay in this country pending further immigration proceedings.

As the grandmothers drove up to the house, a few people tossed flowers at their car. About 200 demonstrators were waiting outside the house; some cheered and others booed as the grandmothers passed.

Sister O'Laughlin said both sides were so nervous and mistrustful about the meeting that she had to show them there was no chance Elian could be taken away.

Sister O'Laughlin said she was "showing that windows couldn't be opened, that doors couldn't be opened, that there were no disappearing trap doors."

When the grandmothers arrived, they trembled with fear, the nun said.

"There was pain on both sides, there was hurt on both sides," Sister O'Laughlin said. "The greatest element, however, was that of fear."

Elian's father, in a letter printed in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, asked to be included in the reunion by telephone. Sister O'Laughlin said a nun took a cell phone from Mrs. Quintana, the paternal grandmother, after it rang.

As Elian returned to his relatives' home in Miami, a crowd waiting outside roared with approval. Elian's great-uncle Delfin Gonzalez faced the crowd while holding a crucifix above his head.

"Tomorrow they're going to make me an American citizen," Elian said in an interview broadcast over the Spanish-language Radio Mambi while driving back to his relatives' home.

On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott indicated he has no solid plans for handling legislation to give Elian U.S. citizenship. That would remove the boy from the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency that ordered him back to Cuba.

"There are a lot of extenuating circumstances," the Mississippi Republican said. "Obviously it could come up next week. But there are a lot of people looking at this issue and there may be developments between now and then."

President Clinton supported the grandmothers' cause, hinting he might veto the citizenship legislation if it passes.

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