Amid heavy security and with many guidelines, the Cuban grandmothers of Elian Gonzalez had an emotional reunion today with the 6-year-old boy, who has become the focus of a heated international custody battle.
"He hasn't talked much. All I know is everything was fine in there," said Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elian's Miami cousin, after the meeting. "All they talked about was an album of photos they had brought. . . . They just came up and hugged him. We feel good because those are his two grandmothers and they showed their love for him."
The much-anticipated reunion took place at the gated Miami Beach home of Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, a Dominican nun who is president of Barry University, a Catholic school here with 8,000 students. O'Laughlin, a longtime children's advocate, was asked by Attorney General Janet Reno, described as an old friend, to provide a neutral setting for the get-together after the first attempt at a meeting here failed Monday night, said Barry spokesman Joe McQuay.
After the 1 hour and 40 minute reunion, when Elian had returned with his Miami relatives to their Little Havana home and the grandmothers had departed without comment on their jet back to Washington, O'Laughlin emerged to tell reporters she felt good, but also sad, about what had just taken place.
"There were no accusations or promises or trying to define the future," said O'Laughlin, 70, who did not sit in on the private meeting between the boy and his grandmothers. "There were only moments of tearful weeping for what might have been and what was not to be."
The reunion, as most aspects of this complex case have been, was fraught with dramatic emotions, political hijinks and the simple needs of a small boy. As he waited for his grandmothers, Elian played with puzzles and an Etch-a-Sketch that the nun had provided. His Miami relatives said he had little to say about the meeting, and after his return home, he rode around on the shoulders of a male cousin, giving well-wishers on the street the peace/victory sign.
O'Laughlin said a great portion of her task today was quelling fears, assuring the parties there were "no trap doors" and no tricks up anyone's sleeves. An awkward moment occurred when one grandmother was asked to turn over a cellular telephone, which the Miami relatives said she had been ordered by the Fidel Castro government to bring to the meeting in violation of the agreed-upon rules.
The grandmothers did not speak with any member of the Miami family, Marisleysis Gonzalez said.
A small army of Miami Beach police officers stood guard this evening outside O'Laughlin's cream-colored estate with black iron gates, owned by Barry University, that sits on scenic Indian Creek. Several hundred people waited on the street outside, shouting, "He's staying! He's staying!" and unfurling a huge Cuban flag. One man held a sign that said, "Grandmothers, if you love your grandson, stay in America."
The grandmothers, Raquel Rodriguez and Mariela Gonzalez, have been in the United States since Friday, pleading their case in New York and on Capitol Hill that Elian, the survivor of a shipwreck in which his mother and nine others died, should be reunited with his father in Cuba. But the boy's Miami relatives, who have been keeping him since his rescue at sea on Thanksgiving Day, continue to fight a ruling earlier this month by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that he belongs with his father.
Federal officials ordered Elian's great-uncle in Miami, Lazaro Gonzalez, to bring the boy to the O'Laughlin home as a condition of his remaining in this country temporarily while the custody issue and a federal court appeal of the INS ruling are decided. Attempts to bring the two factions together Monday night failed when Lazaro Gonzalez insisted the grandmothers come to a dinner at his home in the Little Havana community, an invitation the women refused, citing concerns about security and the circus-like atmosphere of demonstrators and news media outside the home.
The women came to the meeting understanding that they would not be allowed to take the boy away with them. "The purpose of the meeting is a family visit, with no bearing on the legal matters," said Spencer Eig, a lawyer on the legal team representing Lazaro Gonzalez.
In Havana today, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma printed a letter to the grandmothers it said had been written by Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez; his grandfather; and his great-grandmother. The letter asked the women to take a cell phone to the meeting and to call them in Cuba one hour after it began "because we want to talk to the boy there when he is with you entirely free."
The letter also instructed the women to return to Washington after the visit to continue their conversations with members of Congress.
"This is proof that these family members are being controlled by Fidel Castro himself. He's orchestrating the whole business," said George Fowler, general counsel for the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), who was asked by O'Laughlin before the grandmothers' arrival to leave a neighbor's house where he was watching the events unfold.
According to U.S. officials in Washington, the Miami delegation to the meeting was limited by the INS to 10 people, who were to wait in another room of the 13-room house while Elian met alone with his grandmothers. U.S. officials said that the Miamians had received INS assurances that no Cuban government officials would be present.
Officials with the National Council of Churches, which has sponsored the women's trip to the United States, also were asked to leave the home.
In Washington, meanwhile, although Congress was nearly shut down because of Tuesday's snowstorm, proponents of bills to grant Elian U.S. citizenship held meetings and headcounts by telephone. Preliminary results indicated that smooth passage of the bills, which have been introduced in the House and the Senate, is unlikely.
But back in Miami tonight, in Little Havana, that issue was tabled for another day, as the relatives rejoiced at having cleared a dreaded moment in their fight to keep the boy. On Thursday, a contingent plans to travel to Washington to lobby for Elian's citizenship, as the grandmothers work the same ground to try to prevent that from happening.
Marisleysis Gonzalez, who had been vocal about her fears that Elian might be snatched during the meeting and whisked away, said she was relieved it was over. And she said she felt the Miami family's position was stronger than ever--at least in the heart of the boy.
"I feel like he is more to this side than to that side," she said.
Pressley reported from Miami, DeYoung from Washington. Staff writers Helen Dewar and Juliet Eilperin in Washington and special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Elian Gonzalez responds to crowd outside Little Havana home of his Miami relatives as he returns from a meeting with his grandmothers.
CAPTION: Mariela Gonzalez, left, and Raquel Rodriguez walk toward a helicopter in Miami Beach yesterday after meeting with their grandson Elian Gonzalez.