A father-son reunion between Elian Gonzalez and his dad would immediately and dramatically change the dynamics behind the international tug-of-war over the six-year-old boy.
The old aphorism that possession is nine-tenths of the law is particularly true in child-custody cases, say legal experts.
That's why lawyers for Elian's Miami relatives have negotiated so hard to prevent surrendering custody of the boy to his Cuban father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.
But the father's anticipated arrival in the US, in all likelihood, will only improve his standing. Juan Miguel can expect to be the subject of intense media scrutiny, but a recent public-opinion poll shows 64 percent of Americans support his reunification with Elian.
"Elian is my life," he told US immigration officials in December. "He is my first son. Wherever I went, he went with me."
If Elian's Miami relatives give up custody, even under a temporary joint-custody agreement, it would substantially undermine the strategy of their lawyers, who were hoping to present evidence in a Miami family court that Elian has bonded with his cousin as a surrogate mother and that any effort to remove him from her home would cause the boy substantial psychological harm.
Strategy of delay
Under this strategy, maintaining the status quo with Elian works to the Miami relatives' advantage by continuing to build a stronger relationship between the cousin and the boy, while at the same time fostering estrangement of the boy from his father.
Miami lawyers have even disparaged the father as an unfit parent, suggesting that he's been verbally abusive to his son on the telephone and that he told Elian his mother is still alive and living in Cuba. Government officials have dismissed the allegations against the father as groundless.
Four months is a long time for a six-year-old to be away from his parents, psychologists say. During that time, a child naturally reaches out to anyone who offers to fill the parental void.
By reuniting Elian with his dad during the appeals process (which could last many months more), Juan Miguel will have an opportunity to revive what, by all accounts, was a caring, nurturing relationship with his son.
What is unclear is whether the father and the Miami relatives will end their dispute, place international political considerations aside, and unite as a family to ensure that Elian's transition is as smooth as possible.
"Ultimately, the boy will be reunited with his father," says Delvis Fernandez Levy, president of the Cuban American Alliance Education Fund, which seeks improved US relations with Cuba. "We hope that the separation between father and child is minimized as much as possible," he says, "because prolonging that separation between Elian and his father does harm to the child, as well as the whole family."
Elian's Miami relatives say the combination of losing his mother, drifting for two days alone in the open ocean, and enduring months of infighting among his relatives has left the child in a fragile state. They warn that any further disruptions - such as taking him away from his cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez - could cause serious harm.
Elian's connection to his cousin and the problem of his long separation from his father are partly a result of the Clinton administration's failure to quickly resolve the dispute, immigration experts say.
"Our position is that these cases need to be resolved quickly and according to the law," says Nancy Hammer of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "The longer this goes on, the more damaging it is for the child."
Some analysts criticize Attorney General Janet Reno for delaying the reunification in the hope that allowing the Cuban-American community to wage a court battle would placate Cuban-American public opinion in an presidential election year and help ensure a peaceful resolution to the custody dispute.
But the delay only fueled the passions of the Cuban exiles, creating a condition ripe for exploitation by politicians, including the presidential candidates. More significant, the delay allowed time for Elian to become emotionally attached to his cousin and other Miami relatives.
Lawyers for the relatives in Miami say Elian's future should be determined in a Miami family court on the basis of the best interests of the child.
This approach has been endorsed by presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore. But many independent legal experts say such a move would undermine international and national legal precedents.
'Best interests of the child'
For example, the US Supreme Court says the "best interests of the child" standard doesn't always prevail in cases in which a parent is fighting distant relatives for custody of his child.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 1993 opinion: " 'The best interests of the child,' ... is not traditionally the sole criterion ... for [certain] judgments involving children, where their interests conflict in varying degrees with the interests of others."
Writing in a case called Reno v. Flores, Justice Scalia added, "Even if it were shown, for example, that a ... couple desirous of adopting a child would best provide for the child's welfare, the child would nonetheless not be removed from the custody of its parents so long as they were providing for the child adequately."
Scalia goes on to write: "So long as certain minimum requirements of child care are met, the interests of the child may be subordinated ... to the interests of the parents ... themselves."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society