Last-ditch bid to break Elian custody impasse

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Separate negotiations were under way in Cuba and Miami yesterday in a last-ditch effort to break the continuing impasse over the future of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy who has been at the centre of an escalating human and diplomatic drama for the past four months. In Washington, meanwhile, the splits in the political establishment deepened as a senior Republican Congressman broke with the party line and argued that it was time for Elian to be returned.

In Cuba, the top-flight American lawyer, Gregory Craig, was trying to persuade Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, to take up the visa rushed through by the US authorities earlier in the week and travel to the United States. Mr Craig, who has represented the father for the past two months, flew to Havana on Tuesday in the hope of returning with Mr Gonzalez.

Mr Craig is no ordinary lawyer; he was one of the team representing President Clinton through the impeachment proceedings. Even his unusual clout, however, could not prevent the development of yet more hitches. The Cuban authorities were said to be balking at allowing Mr Gonzalez, members of his immediate family, a pediatrician and a teacher, to travel to the US together. They want them to travel as part of a group of 28.

The authorities have so far issued only six entry visas. Unless more visas are issued, Cuba is insisting that the father travels alone or not at all. Juan Miguel, however, appears reluctant to go alone without a cast-iron guarantee that he will be able to reclaim his son at once - a guarantee the US authorities have apparently not given.

A Miami judge last month dismissed an application for a political asylum hearing made by Elian's US-based relatives, ruling that Elian belonged with his father. But there has been no ruling on whether they or the father should have custody of Elian pending their appeal: this, along with arrangements for transferring custody, should that be agreed, was the subject of intense bargaining in Miami between lawyers for Elian's relatives and lawyers representing the US immigration service.

Although it was immigration service officials that originally placed Elian with his Miami relatives, they have argued ever since he should be sent back to his father in Cuba. This stance is shared by the US Justice Department and by President Clinton.

For many others in the US political arena, especially those seeking election or re-election later this year, there are calculations to make. The prevailing Republican view has been that Elian's mother sacrificed her life to bring her child to America and that freedom (American-style) trumps a father's rights, at least a father in Cuba. Although opinion polls consistently show more than two-thirds of non-Cuban Americans believing that Elian should be sent back to Cuba, Democrats have had a harder time rationalising their position.

Some, especially black and more left-wing congressmen and women, take the father's side; Hillary Clinton sat on the fence for the first three months before coming down unambiguously on the father's side in the past week.

Vice-President Al Gore, on the other hand, talks about giving Elian permanent resident status and letting the law take its course, while steadfastly declining to say whether the child should be returned to his father in Cuba. This muddying of the waters has brought accusations from Republicans and now from fellow Democrats that his priority is not principle but political expediency.

Now, similar divisions could open up in the Republican Party following some straight talking from Steve Largent, Congressman from Oklahoma:"As a father of three sons, I know how important daddies are to six year old boys... Is it better for Elian to live in our great country without his father or to live with his father in Cuba? No contest: I say reunite Elian with his daddy - today."