Elian's dad is in the US, but for how long?

Amid preparations for a reunion, questions persist about the likelihood of defection.

To many Americans, the perfect solution to the tug of war over Elian Gonzalez would be for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, to travel to Miami, take custody of his son, and promptly defect.

It is an outcome that would satisfy Americans concerned about safeguarding parents' rights and upholding international legal precedents in child-custody cases. And it would elate Cuban exiles worried about what they see as the immorality of forcing a young child to return to a communist dictatorship to face possible brainwashing.

But there's one major uncertainty in this scenario: Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

Elian's father may prefer living with his son in his Cuban homeland rather than starting a new life in America.

Under US law, he has the right to make that choice. What is unclear is whether under the watchful eye of Cuba's security apparatus, Juan Miguel, who arrived in Washington yesterday, will have an opportunity - if he so chooses - to seek political asylum in the United States.

Whether he will defect is a question both US and Cuban officials are trying to anticipate as the father prepares for what looks to be an inevitable reunion with his son.

US officials are not expected to overtly encourage the father's defection, but say they would assist him if he requests asylum.

Cuba's safeguards

On the other side, Cuban officials must feel confident that they will be able to exert enough influence over the father to prevent a huge blow to the prestige of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"If the father were to successfully defect, it would be one of the most stunning embarrassments that Castro has experienced over these last 41 years," says Brian Latell, a professor at Georgetown University and a former Latin American specialist with the Central Intelligence Agency. "The Castro government will take every conceivable measure to ... preclude the risk [of defection.]"

If he were to defect, Juan Miguel would join a long list of prominent Cubans who fled the island for freedom overseas. They include Mr. Castro's own daughter, Alina Fernandez, who used a disguise and a fake passport to escape to Spain in 1993. In addition, many of the most talented players in America's major league baseball grew up in Castro's Cuba. Since 1991, at least 30 Cuban players have defected, including the pitching brothers Livan and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez..

But if the risks are high for Castro, so are the potential rewards. Collaboration between Washington and Havana to reunite a father and his son - with the support of 60 percent of the American public - could trigger a breakthrough in US-Cuba relations and perhaps an eventual end to the 40-year US trade embargo. That outcome would represent a worst-case scenario for Cuban exiles in Miami.

A defection could prevent such a modern-day Bay of Pigs for Castro's critics in Miami. But analysts say the family's defection wouldn't be easy.

The Cuban government can prevent a family defection by, in effect, holding Juan Miguel's wife, their baby, and perhaps even Elian at a Cuban diplomatic facility whenever the father attends public events and press conferences in Washington, analysts say.

On the other hand, Juan Miguel might simply be a loyal communist and Castro supporter, and have no interest in defecting, these analysts say. But the Cuban regime's record of censoring free speech and political expression will make it difficult to verify whether Elian's father is acting of his own free will while in the US or is following the orchestrated plan of Castro, they say.

Juan Miguel's public statements suggest he has no intention of defecting. The father's lawyer, Gregory Craig of Washington, has said he has no reason to believe his client wants to defect. But Mr. Craig added that if his client does, in fact, want to defect, "I hope he has the freedom, and I expect he has the freedom to make that choice."

Upon his arrival yesterday, Juan Miguel said he was grateful to "leaders from my country who have been like a brother giving advice and support through long days of pain and uncertainty."

As if to address the issue of Juan Miguel's freedom in the US, Fernando Remirez, Cuba's top diplomat in Washington, said Cuba was immediately waiving any diplomatic immunity at the residence of the Cuban Interest Section, where Juan Miguel, his wife, infant son - and perhaps soon Elian - will live for several weeks or months.

Some analysts say they see nothing to suggest Juan Miguel is considering defection.

"If he defects, so be it," says Delvis Fernandez Levy, a Cuban-American who seeks warmer relations with Cuba. "But ... from what we know and from the exhaustive interviews the US immigration agency has conducted in Cuba with the father, he has expressed a desire to be with his son. What happens after that, we'll have to wait and see."

Not just any grandmothers

Critics of the Cuban government say it will be obvious whether Juan Miguel is living freely in the US or is being shadowed by Cuban agents.

"We know when the grandmothers came [to visit Elian], they were not just two grandmothers coming to the United States. They were under the strict control of the Cuban security forces," says Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba, in Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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