The fight to keep 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez in the United States shifted to Congress today when a House committee subpoenaed the boy, potentially thwarting his return to Cuba next Friday.
The subpoena for the boy to testify Feb. 10 before the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight could take precedence over the Immigration and Naturalization Service's order that he must return next week to his Cuban father.
The news was met with cries of jubilation at the Little Havana home of Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez. As a large crowd cheered, Elian, held high in his relatives' arms, waved a copy of the subpoena and made a "V" sign for victory.
"We are very, very happy," said Elian's cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez. "This is what we have been hoping for."
Members of Miami's Cuban American community, who had been protesting the INS decision for the past two days, took to the streets again in Little Havana tonight, this time cheering and pumping their arms in celebration.
In Washington, the Justice Department said it would have no comment tonight on the subpoena, which an official said the department had not yet seen. The official said department leaders expected to remain silent over the weekend while they took stock of where today's fast-moving events left the case.
Earlier today, Lazaro Gonzalez sought temporary custody of the child in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Attorneys for the boy's relatives here maintain that the emergency request for custody would clear the way for Lazaro Gonzalez to file a new political asylum application for Elian.
"Elian has repeatedly stated to his father that he does not want to be returned to Cuba," the petition said. "Forced return to Cuba would submit him to abuse and neglect, and the Castro regime has taken control of Elian's father."
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the government reform committee, an outspoken critic of Cuban President Fidel Castro and an author, with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), of a 1996 measure that strengthened the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, subpoenaed Elian to testify in February so that he will remain in the country while the courts can consider his case. "I want to make sure that Elian's rights are protected," Burton said in a statement.
"What right does that man have?" the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, said during a news conference in his hometown of Cardenas, Cuba, where tens of thousands of people rallied tonight in support of Elian's return. "I am the father of Elian, and immigration has said that I am the only one who can speak for him. Why should it be delayed? Who is he? He is no one. I am the father."
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) had pushed for a subpoena as a way of buying time, until Congress convenes on Jan. 24 and can consider a proposal by Helms to grant the child immediate U.S. citizenship.
"Whether a subpoena is going to force him to stay is a question," a spokeswoman for Diaz-Balart told Reuters tonight, indicating that Elian may be allowed to leave the country despite the subpoena.
At least one legal expert said the great-uncle's petition for temporary custody had little chance of succeeding, except as a possible delaying tactic.
"I don't think they have any standing whatsoever," said lawyer David Levy, president of the Children's Rights Council, a nonprofit children's advocacy group in Washington.
Judge Rosa Rodriguez was expected to rule early next week on the custody petition.
Since Elian was found Thanksgiving Day after two days at sea following a shipwreck in which his mother and nine others perished as they attempted to flee Cuba's communist government, the boy has been the focus of an international struggle over whether he should stay in the United States or be returned to his Cuban father.
INS spokesman Russ Bergeron said agency officials had not seen the custody petition. But he said that the state court filing does not affect his agency's ruling, because it was only on who had a right to speak for Elian on immigration matters.
Attorney General Janet Reno met tonight with two local Miami officials, along with a representative of the militant Cuban American National Foundation, and an attorney for Elian's Miami relatives.
An administration official said that Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas requested the meeting this afternoon, in calls to the White House and Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., to discuss his concerns about "civil unrest in the city." Penelas then asked, the official said, if he could bring the others with him.
The official said Reno's agreement to the meeting reflected her personal style and follow-through on a pledge Thursday to remain open to any new information in the Gonzalez case.
In a statement issued after the meeting, Reno said only that she had "listened to their concerns" and would "respond as quickly as possible." Reno said she was considering the issues they raised as well as those raised in a letter the attorneys sent her asking her to reverse the INS decision.
An official said her public reticence was due both to the conversation with the Miami delegation and to news of the subpoena, which came as the meeting was being held.
In addition to Penelas, the Miami delegation included City of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, foundation representative Alberto M. Hernandez and attorney Roger Bernstein.
Before Burton issued the subpoena, protest organizers had promised that their efforts would continue. Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, who was arrested on misdemeanor charges in Thursday's protest, called for South Florida's 800,000-member Cuban American community to convene on Miami International Airport on Monday "to slow it down and even bring it to a halt." But after the subpoena was served, they said they would reconsider that action on Saturday.
After a day of vehement protests Thursday, in which human chains blocked intersections, more than 100 people were arrested and police used tear gas to disperse crowds at midnight, the city fell relatively calm today, Miami and Miami-Dade police spokesmen said. Only a few protesters showed up at a noontime rally downtown, and the throngs in the streets and traffic slowdowns were greatly reduced.
As the day began, President Clinton stood by his decision not to get involved in the case, saying as he prepared to leave for the Israeli-Syrian peace talks in West Virginia that opponents of the INS decision should seek legal relief rather than breaking the law as many protesters had done.
"This is a volatile and difficult case," Clinton said. "We need to keep this out of the political process as much as possible and within the established legal channels."
In Cardenas tonight, Elian's father, his four grandparents and his great-grandmother wept when supporters sang of Elian's mother, lost at sea. Elian's classmates, teacher, principal and pediatrician offered recollections of the little boy who loves things that fly as two kites sailed over the seaside plaza.
Pressley reported from Miami, DeYoung from Washington. Special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.