Elian Gonzalez found himself at the center of an ideologically driven custody battle after he was brought ashore in the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day after his mother had died trying to reach Florida. Current U.S. law allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to remain here, although those intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard are sent home. Elian's mother and father are divorced, but the father still plays an active part in the boy's life. His mother and her new husband had taken Elian along on their doomed attempt to reach the U.S. without the knowledge or permission of his father. His father, Juan Gonzalez, quickly indicated he wanted his son returned to him in Cuba. But Juan's fiercely anti-Castro uncles in Miami insisted that the boy would have a better life in the U.S. and that he should not be sent back. That put the onus on Washington to resolve the issue, and the Clinton administration instructed the INS to make a determination on the basis of U.S. law in the case.
Why did Elian's fate become a political football?
Miami's anti-Castro hard-liners saw Elian's fate as an opportunity to reclaim the spotlight for their campaign against the aging dictator. The U.S. political tide had been turning steadily against the exile activists since the pope's visit to Cuba two years ago, and Washington has begun to slowly ease some of its restrictions on Cuba. In campaigning for Elian to remain in the U.S., anti-Castro activists are using the argument that the boy's mother died trying to escape Castro's Cuba, and that returning him to Cuba would be to condemn him to a life of repression and poverty.
The Elian case offered Castro a political bonanza, too. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Cubans have been enraged by the fact that Elian has not been returned to Cuba despite his father's express wishes, and they have turned out to protest against what they see as Elian's kidnapping. This upsurge of nationalist hostility toward Washington has proved to be a political shot in the arm for Castro, and he's happy to ride the wave.
The politics of the case are more complex for the U.S. government. While it has determined that the boy should be sent home, the Clinton administration is traditionally wary of confrontation with the politically powerful anti-Castro activist community, even more so in an election year. No such qualms exist for Republican legislators and presidential candidates, who've come out strongly behind demands that Elian be kept in the U.S. and have vowed to fight the matter on Capitol Hill.
How did the Immigration and Naturalization Service reach its decision
that Elian should be returned home?
INS officials have traveled to Cuba and interviewed Juan Gonzalez, establishing that he is indeed the boy's father and satisfying themselves that the two remain close. (Elian and his father have maintained regular telephone contact throughout his ordeal.) In terms of U.S. law, custody naturally reverts to Elian's father following the death of his mother, and the INS therefore on January 5 ruled that Juan Gonzalez was the legal guardian entitled to speak for Elian, and that the boy should be sent home by January 14 in accordance with the wishes of his legal guardian.
Why was Elian not sent home despite the INS ruling?
The anti-Castro activist community in Miami responded to the INS decision with protests and civil disobedience, while Elian's Miami relatives petitioned a Florida court to claim custody. Judge Rosa Rodriguez on January 10 awarded temporary custody to his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez. The judge, who was later revealed to have political links with the spokesman for Elian's Miami relatives, accepted the argument that the boy faced imminent danger to his physical and mental health if he was returned to Cuba.
Judge Rodriguez's finding, however, was dismissed by the Justice Department on the basis that her court had no jurisdiction in the matter. But the INS did waive its January 14 deadline in order to allow a federal court challenge to its ruling, which begins on January 18. The INS remains committed to send Elian home, unless its finding is overruled in the federal courts.