On a mission to recover the child at the center of a bitter international custody battle, the grandmothers of Elian Gonzalez made emotional and emphatic appeals here today "to end this tragedy" by returning the 6-year-old boy to his father in Cuba.
Mariela Quintana de Gonzalez and Raquel Rodriguez, the boy's paternal and maternal grandmothers, scoffed at the notion that Elian would be better off in the United States than in Cuba and said the Gonzalez relatives in Miami who are caring for Elian have no right to do so.
"I came here to tell you all and to ask you to end this tragedy that has so affected us as a family, so our grandson can return home as soon as possible," Gonzalez said. "He is a Cuban. He was born there. He grew up there. Nobody has the right" to keep him from returning.
The two women are scheduled to travel to Washington Saturday to meet at the Justice Department with Attorney General Janet Reno and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner.
It was unclear how or when they expect to meet with Elian, however. The women said they have no intention of going to Miami, where the boy's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, has launched a court fight to prevent the child's return to Cuba.
"We will make a special meal for them," Lazaro Gonzalez told reporters outside his home in Miami's Little Havana this afternoon. But he and other family representatives made clear the boy will not meet his grandmothers elsewhere, let alone return to Cuba with them.
The women left Havana airport this afternoon accompanied on the flight by National Council of Churches General Secretary Robert Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. The NCC, an umbrella group representing mainline U.S. Protestant churches, has a long history of involvement in Cuba--and support for normalized relations between its government and Washington--in association with its counterpart on the island, the Cuban Council of Churches. After a meeting with NCC representatives in Cuba last month, Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, publicly authorized the church group to represent his interests in this country regarding Elian.
Despite the uncertainty over their next steps, the grandmothers today accomplished one part of their mission during a brief news conference at John F. Kennedy International Airport: to make a direct appeal to the American people and to state plainly that they--not just Fidel Castro's government--want Elian back home.
Rodriguez said Elian's Miami relatives had not only distorted Elian's life in Cuba but also the image of her daughter, Elian's mother Elizabet, by insisting that her dying wish was that Elian grow up in the United States.
The only way "the memory of his mother can rest in peace," Rodriguez said, "is if the child is with his father and beside his grandparents."
Her daughter wasn't fleeing persecution by the Cuban government, Rodriguez said, but instead "made a mistake" in allowing herself to be "pushed" by a man who "was violent and threatened her."
Lazaro Munero and Elizabet were among ten Cubans who perished when their small boat capsized in the Atlantic Ocean on Nov. 25. Along with two other adults, Elian survived and was found lashed to an inner tube by two Florida fishermen.
On Jan. 4, the INS ruled that the boy should be reunited with his father, who asked that he be sent back to Cuba. The Gonzalez relatives in Miami refused, turning the case into an instant international custody battle and a new skirmish in the 40-year-old battle over U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Although the Miami relatives won an initial round in Florida family court, where a judge awarded Lazaro Gonzalez temporary custody of the child, Reno insisted that the case is a federal matter and that the only proper place to contest the INS ruling is in federal court.
On Wednesday, attorneys in Miami filed a federal suit against Reno and Meissner, charging that the INS violated Elian's constitutional rights by refusing to consider a political asylum petition they had filed on his behalf.
The judge originally assigned to that case, James Lawrence King, today recused himself at the request of the Justice Department. The case now has been assigned to District Judge William M. Hoeveler.
No court date was set, and the case is under threat of being overtaken by an attempt in Congress next week to declare Elian a U.S. citizen. If that attempt succeeds, the court case will become moot since the boy would no longer be an immigrant under INS jurisdiction.
In an interview taped today for weekend broadcast on John McLaughlin's "One on One" television show, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that "we will have legislation filed on Monday" and voted on as early as Wednesday "that would allow him to have citizenship."
While saying that the White House has done no vote count on the proposed bill, a senior administration official said a number of congressional groups are organizing to fight it. "This is not the time for politicians to intervene in what is quickly becoming a family dialogue," the official said, referring to the arrival of Elian's grandmothers.
Duke reported from New York, DeYoung from Washington. Staff writer Sue Anne Pressley in Miami contributed to this report.