The Cuban government announced on Tuesday that it would return two young American boys and their parents to the US, where the father is wanted on charges of kidnapping the children last week before sailing with them and his wife on a small boat from Florida to Cuba.
After two days of talks between US and Cuban officials, the government in Havana announced that the parents, Joshua and Sharyn Hakken, and their two sons would be sent back to Florida where an extensive manhunt had been mounted.
The return agreement is unusual but not unprecedented.
Despite an ongoing 50-year US economic embargo and no significant bilateral treaties, the two countries have cooperated in recent years in the return of a few international fugitives.
A range of legal and international affairs experts suggested earlier on Tuesday that any request by the parents for asylum in Cuba would likely be rejected.
The alleged abduction of the boys, Chase, age 2, and Cole, age 4, came shortly after a judge in Louisiana terminated the couple’s parental rights, according to police.
Police say the Hakkens somehow discovered that the court had awarded custody to the boys' maternal grandparents, who live near Tampa, Fla.
Last Wednesday, Hakken broke into the house, bound his mother-in-law, and left with the boys still in their pajamas, police said. He drove his mother-in-law’s car a few blocks and then changed vehicles.
Hakken, his wife, and the two boys then boarded a sailboat and headed into the Gulf of Mexico. A manhunt and statewide missing-child alert ensued, but the trail went cold – until they turned up aboard their 25-foot sailboat “Salty” at the Hemingway Marina in Havana.
The Hakkens apparently fled to Cuba hoping to either remain anonymous in the Caribbean yachting community or to appeal to the Castro government for refuge.
The circumstances of their surreptitious departure from the US cast a significant cloud over their case, experts said.
“If their parental rights were terminated, it would be as though they stole two other children from a day care center or a school,” said Michael Dale, a family law professor at Nova Southeastern University Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“These people no longer have any legal interest in those children. They are legally strangers to each other,” he said.
Because of the lack of bilateral agreements between the US and Cuba, any solution had to be negotiated. “If there are no treaties, no conventions, then the question becomes whether or not the two countries, as a matter of reciprocity, will grant relief to the other,” Professor Dale said. “If not, there really isn’t anything you can do about it.”
The negotiations may have been helped by a well-known precedent. Thirteen years ago in 2000, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the forcible return of Elian Gonzalez from relatives in Miami to his father in Cuba.
The 5-year-old boy had been discovered adrift in an inner tube off the Florida coast. His mother and others died trying reach US soil. The boy’s relatives mounted a vigorous legal defense to allow him to remain in the US, per his mother’s wish.
The Clinton administration disagreed. US officials justified their decision to send Elian back to Cuba as necessary to uphold Elian’s father’s parental rights.
In the Hakken case, if the Louisiana family court judge’s ruling is correct, the parental rights concerning the two boys belong not to their parents but to their grandparents.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department issued an arrest warrant last week charging Mr. Hakken with two counts of kidnapping, two counts of interference in child custody, two counts of child neglect, one count of false imprisonment, one count of burglary with battery, and a count of grand theft auto.
According to police reports, Hakken was arrested in June 2012 on multiple drug charges in St. Tammany Parish, La. The report says the arrest came after Hakken had attended “some type of anti-government rally.”
The report says that at some point after the arrest, Louisiana took custody of the two boys and placed them in temporary foster care. Hakken is said to have shown up at the facility with a gun and began beating on the door. He eventually fled without his children.