US custody decision on Elian affirms parents' rights

Returning him to his father angers Cuban Americans. Relatives in US may

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The decision by the United States to return young Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba marks an important victory for the rights of parents in making decisions about their children's future.

But the move has angered many in the Cuban exile community in south Florida who had argued that Elian's mother gave her life in an attempt to win freedom and a bright future for her son in America.

The decision, announced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) yesterday, caps an emotional custody fight that has been closely watched around the world.

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To anti-Castro Cubans here in Florida, there could be nothing more terrible than sending a six-year-old boy with his entire life before him back into the control of a repressive government on an island with a depressed economy. To them, freedom and opportunity are more important than the bond between a parent and child.

Ultimately, the issue came down to who should decide Elian's future, his father or a US judge seeking to determine the best interests of the child.

Experts say that under US and international law, Elian's father retains the right to make such decisions unless there is some evidence that the parent has forfeited that right by either abandoning or abusing the child. There was no such evidence in this case.

"It is a long overdue recognition by the INS that the father has the right to the care and custody of his child and to speak for his child," says Bernard Perlmutter, director of the Children and Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami. "The father's rights are certainly superior to any other family member's who claim a right to make decisions and speak on behalf of Elian."

Mr. Perlmutter says the decision marked a good day for parents, "even parents who hail from countries with whom we have frosty diplomatic relations."

Elian has been staying with his father's uncle and aunt in Miami, and they were expected to attempt to obtain a court order blocking the INS decision. It is unclear whether such distant relatives have legal standing to make a claim on behalf of a child in federal court. And if they don't, it raises questions about why it took the Clinton administration almost a month and a half to decide the issue.

Some analysts say Elian became a convenient pawn in an international political tug of war between anti-Castro Cubans and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

The youth has the been at the center of a politically charged and diplomatically sensitive custody dispute since he was found on Nov. 25 clinging to an inner tube in the Atlantic, a survivor of an ill-fated illegal-immigrant smuggling trip from Cuba to Florida.

His mother was one of 11 people who died when their boat capsized.

Cuban exile leaders have seized upon Elian as a cause celebre as part of their opposition to Castro. The boy, who started school in Miami Tuesday, has been showered with toys, treated to a trip to a theme park, and paid visits by US politicians.

The boy's Miami relatives - and many Cuban Americans - say he is a political refugee who would have a better life with them and should stay in the US.

"First and foremost, this is another case of the Clinton administration caving in to Fidel Castro," says Mariela Ferretti of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. "The administration is weak when it comes to Cuba policy, to Castro policy. We have tremendous concern over Elian Gonzalez."

"He has earned his right to be in the US and that right should be there for his protection," she adds. "Elian's welfare should really concern everyone."

*Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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