Tension rises among Cubans as Elian custody battle intensifies


Tension is rising among the Cuban exile community in Miami as the custody battle over young Elian Gonzalez intensified yesterday.

Local mayors have said they will not co-operate in any handing over of the boy to federal authorities and will hold the Attorney General, Ms Janet Reno, responsible for any disorder which results.

Cuban exiles protesting against the return of the boy to his father in Cuba have held a huge torchlight demonstration at his house in the form of a cross. They also practised drilling manoeuvres.

Negotiations between officials of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) and the relatives and lawyers representing the six-year-old boy resumed yesterday morning after the deadline for revoking his parole was extended for 24 hours until 9 a.m. local time today.

In a development which took US officials by surprise, President Fidel Castro said in a televised speech in Havana that he wanted the boy's father, Mr Juan Gonzalez, to go to the US to take custody of his son.

The father would be accompanied by a large delegation of other family members, school friends and legal, medical and psychiatric experts.

"We have the perfect formula for reinserting Elian" into life in Cuba, Dr Castro declared. Cuban officials had discussions at the State Department in Washington yesterday about Dr Castro's proposal but no request for visas was made at the meeting. Travel between Cuba and the US is severely restricted.

President Clinton, who has supported the return of Elian to his father, reacted cautiously to the increasing tensions among the Cuban exiles in Miami when he said during a press conference: "Whatever the law is, whatever the decision that is ultimately made, the rest of us ought to obey it".

Elian has been staying with his granduncle, Mr Lazaro Gonzalez, and other relatives in Miami since he was rescued last November after spending 48 hours in the sea off Florida clinging to an inflated tube. His mother and 10 other Cubans were drowned when their small boat sank.

The INS ruled last January that Elian, who had been given temporarily into the care of his granduncle, should be returned to his father in Cuba. The father was divorced from Elian's mother, who had decided to flee Cuba and begin a new life in the US with Elian and her new partner.

For the strongly anti-Castro Cuban community in Miami, known as "Little Havana", the thought of Elian going back to live under what it sees as a communist dictatorship was intolerable. The boy's survival in shark-infested waters was seen as a miracle and a sign that he should stay in the US in fulfilment of the wishes of his dead mother.

But the efforts by the relatives to secure political asylum for Elian through the state courts in Florida have been overruled by a federal judge.

Several weeks ago the judge ruled that asylum is the sole prerogative of the attorney general, who had made clear that she believed Elian should be returned to his father. The family have appealed to a higher federal court which has fixed a hearing for May 8th.

The case is particularly delicate for Ms Reno because she was a state prosecutor in Miami before becoming attorney general and has remained in contact with the Cuban community there.

She appeared upset yesterday at the public defiance by 22 mayors in the Miami area, who said they would not co-operate with any attempt to revoke Elian's parole and would hold her responsible for any disorder which resulted.

The mayor of Miami, Mr Joe Carrollo, said: "It is not the responsibility of the Miami Police Department to snatch Elian Gonzalez from his Miami family and be sent back to a communist regime."

Ms Reno, at her weekly briefing in Washington, said: "This case has been heartbreaking for everybody involved. But we believe that the law is clear - the father must speak for the little boy because the sacred bond between parent and child must be recognised and honoured and Elian must be reunited with his father."

Ms Reno said she expected the local police authorities to co-operate in any move to return Elian.

The sudden proposal by Dr Castro to send Elian's father and a delegation of about 30 people to the US has given the case an unexpected twist. Up to now the father has been reluctant to come to the US and the boy's two grandmothers came instead several months ago but returned without any breakthrough.

Dr Castro has indicated that Elian should stay in the US until the legal process has been concluded, but remain in the care of his father and the other advisers during that time to prepare for his homecoming.

The Cuban President is obviously confident that the appeal court will uphold the ruling that the INS can return Elian to Cuba.