Elian's father flies in to accuse 'cruel' relatives

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The Independent US

The father of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez flew into Washington from Cuba early yesterday morning, saying that he was impatient for the return of his son and wanted a swift end to the "cruel" battle for custody. But he had harsh words for his Miami relatives, accusing them of exerting "cruel psychological pressure" on Elian and exploiting him for political advantage, and he pledged to stay in the United States for as long as it took to reclaim his child.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez emerged from the small private plane onto the tarmac of Dulles airport shortly before 7am, with his six-month-old baby son in his arms and his second wife at his side. A hotel worker who had never before been outside Cuba, he looked solemn, determined and slightly apprehensive as he addressed the massed ranks of reporters.

"I'm here with my wife and six-month-old son," he said. "This is Elian's true family and we love him very much." He described the branch of the family in Miami, which has cared for Elian since his rescue from the shipwreck in November, as "some distant relatives who had never seen him before". The time Elian had spent with them, he said, had only compounded the psychological damage he had suffered by watching his mother drown.

Thanking the American public for their support for his case, he nonetheless expressed mystification at the "endless confusing legal procedures" that had taken so long to recognise "the unquestionable principle of parental rights". "It's been an agonising experience to see my son submitted to cruel psychological pressures aimed at influencing his personality," he said. "Worse still, Elian has been paraded and exhibited in public rallies and by the media with a clear intent to obtain political advantage from this tragedy."

Mr Gonzalez also made a new plea for visas for more than 20 additional people the Cuban authorities had wanted to send with him: the chairman of the Cuban National Assembly, psychologists, and teachers and pupils from his kindergarten. The US issued only six of the 28 visas requested by Cuba; but - after a personal intervention to the Cuban President, Fidel Castro, from Mr Gonzalez's well-connected American lawyer, Gregory Craig, on Wednesday - the Cuban authorities, which do not usually let families travel to the US unaccompanied, allowed Mr Gonzalez and his relatives to do just that. Mr Craig was a member of President Clinton's defence team during his impeachment and maintains close ties with the White House and with the Justice Department. It is not known who is paying his fees.

The Gonzalez family's arrival in Washington had been clearly choreographed to convey an image of family closeness and to show Juan Miguel as a loving and competent father. He also appeared to have been coached to speak slowly and make appropriate pauses for the interpreter. But it was impossible to judge how far he was acting on the advice of his lawyer, and how far - as associates of the Miami relatives insisted - he was under he thumb of the Cuban authorities.

Phalanxes of Cuban officials, headed by President Castro, had been at Havana airport to see him off, and a delegation of Cuban diplomats met him off the plane in Washington. Mr Gonzalez was whisked off by car to the suburban residence of the senior Cuban diplomat in Washington.

The Miami relatives say they will not take the boy to Washington or anywhere else for a handover. They insist that Juan Miguel would be welcome in their house, and invited him to stay with them instead of in Washington.

But in the past week they have systematically sought to weaken his claim on the boy, saying he is an unfit father and calling for an independent psychological examination before any further action is taken. They want guarantees that the boy and his father would stay in America while they pursue court appeals to keep Elian in the US.

There was no information about when Mr Gonzalez could expect to see Elian, but the US Justice Department said it expected them to be reunited "in coming days".