- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez refused yesterday to sign a pledge demanded by U.S. immigration officials to give up the boy if they lose a court appeal for the child to remain in the United States.

The refusal sets up a potential confrontation between the child's surrogate family, backed by most of Miami's Cuban-American community, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which is attempting to send the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor back to Cuba.

"The family is willing to sign an agreement saying they are willing to abide by the laws of the United States. What else do they want," said Armando Gutierrez, the spokesman for Elian's Miami relatives. "Is this a country of liberty and justice for everyone except Elian?"

Demonstrators gathered outside the home of Elian's great-uncle in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood yesterday, chanting "Clinton is a coward. Miami is on fire." The protest came in response to a call by the Miami-based Democracy Movement to form a human chain around the home if the government tries to seize the child.

Mr. Gutierrez said the Justice Department is bowing to threats from Cuban President Fidel Castro, whom he called "El Loco."

"[Mr. Castro] said he's considering sending a commando team to get the boy. What else is he threatening U.S. officials with behind closed doors?" said Mr. Gutierrez.

The INS reiterated yesterday that unless Elian's relatives agree to sign the pledge by 9 a.m. tomorrow, the agency will revoke the child's parole, which gives his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, temporary custody of the boy.

"We are asking for assurances from Larazo Gonzalez that he will turn over Elian at the end of appeals court process, if the process does not go in his favor," said INS spokeswoman Maria Cardona.

Another meeting between family lawyers and INS officials is scheduled for this afternoon.

Ms. Cardona said the ultimatum does not bar the family from seeking "emergency injunction relief" from the Supreme Court, but should that avenue fail, the family would be forced to give up the boy.

The child's relatives last week allowed ABC's Diane Sawyer to spend two days with Elian. The result was his first extended interview, being broadcast this week on "Good Morning America."

In yesterday's segment, ABC said the boy indicated he doesn't want to return to Cuba but decided not to have him say it on the air because of the "inflamed climate" surrounding the case.

"The relatives in Miami have repeatedly said that Elian doesn't want to go back to Cuba. He told us that too," journalist Diane Sawyer said on ABC's "Good Morning America" yesterday.

The Internet-based "Drudge Report" said yesterday that ABC was in the midst of an internal battle between those who wish Miss Sawyer's interview with Elian to be seen in prime time, and those who want it buried in the early morning hours.

Elian's uncle has had custody of the child since he was found floating in an inner tube Nov. 25 after a shipwreck in which his mother and 10 other refugees drowned.

Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a tourism worker in Cuba, has insisted that the boy be returned to the communist island.

Meanwhile, Mr. Castro said in Havana yesterday his government has told U.S. officials it is worried that the Miami-based exiles might spirit the child away to another country or even harm him if they lose their battle to block the boy's return to Cuba.

Reading from Cuban intelligence documents on state television, the Cuban leader said a group of Cuban-Americans in Miami was studying the possibility of taking Elian and his Miami relatives to a third nation, probably Nicaragua or Costa Rica.

Mr. Castro said his government had shared its concerns with the U.S. State Department about the possibility of such a move, "which could cause damage not only to a child, but to the reputation of the United States."

The INS initially said the child's custody should be decided in a Florida state court but reversed that position after Mr. Castro made the child a cause celebre and began orchestrating massive demonstrations to have the boy returned to Cuba.

If Elian's parole is revoked, he would become an alien "without status" and the INS would begin proceedings to take physical custody of the child so he could be returned to Cuba.

"We have been more than generous on this issue. We have been willing to postpone the reunion [with Elian and his father]. We are not willing to agree to an open-ended process," said Ms. Cardona.

On Jan. 6, the INS determined that the boy's father had the legal authority to speak for him, a decision that was upheld recently in Miami federal court.

INS Executive Associate Commissioner Michael Pearson sent a letter late Monday to family attorney Spencer Eig. It said that after nearly 12 weeks the government was still waiting for a "simple, clear statement that your client is willing to produce the child when requested to do so."

Without that assurance, Mr. Pearson wrote, the boy's uncle is not in compliance with the temporary custody he was granted and "we have no choice but to move forward with the termination of Elian's parole as of Thursday, March 30, 2000, at 9 a.m."

The government's ultimatum came after attorneys representing Mr. Gonzalez filed an appeal with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

They are seeking to overturn the federal judge's ruling that affirmed the INS decision to return Elian to his father in Cuba. The U.S. Justice Department participated in that appeal, filing its own motions.

On Monday, the Atlanta court accepted the appeal and scheduled oral arguments for the week of May 8, before a three-judge panel.

If a decision goes against the Florida relatives and is not unanimous, the family could ask the judges to review the decision and could appeal to the full court, where a majority of the court's 12 judges would have to agree to hear the case.

If the full appellate court upholds the INS decision, the Miami family could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, for an "emergency injunction" a legal stay requested to prevent "irrevocable harm." The tactic is most often used in a last-minute death penalty appeal.

While the INS insists that forcibly removing the child from the family is something they wish to avoid, Miami's anti-Castro Cuban-American community is preparing for the worst.

The Democracy Movement, which staged massive protests in January, vowed yesterday to block traffic in downtown Miami and at the city's international airport to prevent Elian's deportation.

"The plans of the government of the United States are to not recognize the court's decision to give more time to the defense. Therefore, we obviously are going to start a campaign to prevent the boy from being taken arbitrarily," said movement president Ramon Saul Sanchez.

Demonstrations will start tomorrow or before, "depending on how critical the situation becomes," Mr. Sanchez said.

The group's strategy may include forming a human chain around the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, where Elian is staying, "blockading" federal buildings in central Miami, asking drivers to drive slowly or to block the entrances to airport parking lots, Mr. Sanchez said.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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