The US Attorney General, Janet Reno, with the strong backing of President Clinton, will act to have Elian Gonzalez forcibly removed from the home of his Miami relatives within days, US newspapers reported yesterday.
The reports, which quoted unnamed officials but were clearly authorised, said that the Justice Department was preparing contingency plans to take the child and that immigration officers and federal marshals in Miami were awaiting orders to move in on the house in "Little Havana".
However, it appeared that several options were still in play, from sending a judge with a warrant to collect the child in the hope that the relatives would agree to hand him over, to a full-scale law and order operation. The new talk of using force appeared to presage imminent action but was also interpreted as a last effort to pressure the relatives into surrendering the child voluntarily.
Lazaro Gonzalez, six-year-old Elian's great-uncle, who was granted temporary custody of Elian immediately after his rescue from the sea last November, has been in breach of the law since he ignored a court order last week to return the child to his father. At that time, custody was formally transferred to the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who had come to the United States from Cuba to reclaim his son.
However, the relatives' hand appeared to be strengthened this week after an appeals court ruled that Elian must stay in the United States until legal proceedings to determine his status were exhausted. The same ruling suggested Elian might have a claim to political asylum in his own right - something the relatives have argued all along and which was dismissed at the outset by the US Justice Department and immigration authorities.
But there was no ruling on the matter of custody, theoretically paving the way for Elian to rejoin his father. On Thursday, in his strongest statement on the case so far, Bill Clinton not only supported his Attorney General by saying Elian should be reunited with his father "in as prompt an orderly a way as possible", but said the ruling cleared the way for such a move. "There is now no conceivable argument," he said, "for his not being reunited with his son."
One of the reasons the Miami relatives had given for not handing over the child was their fear that he would be whisked off to Cuba before his claim to an asylum hearing had been considered.
Mr Clinton has been sparing with his words on the Elian case, but has never left any doubt that he believes Elian belongs with his father, or that he trusts Ms Reno's judgement on how and when to act. The two reportedly discussed the case for almost an hour on Wednesday, just after the appeals court had ruled, and it appears that the conversation gave Ms Reno the presidential nod to act and convinced Mr Clinton to make his statement.
Ms Reno has come in for fierce criticism in some quarters for her reluctance to use force to transfer Elian from the Miami relatives to his father. Some recent reports spoke of her being "paralysed" in the face of so many conflicting considerations: the father's parental rights, his undoubted love for his son, the political strength of Cubans in Miami, the risk of violent protests if the child were removed by force, and the danger that Elian could suffer further psychological trauma if he were wrenched from the relatives straight back to his father.
Ms Reno, however, has insisted throughout that her reluctance to use force stems from her desire to see Elian transferred, if at all possible, amicably from his great uncle's family to his father. The relatives' flouting of the court order, and their continued display of the child - seen amusing himself in the garden with ever more new toys and encouraged to play to the crowds - has incensed many sections of US opinion and made the Justice Department look weak. Lazaro Gonzalez has offered to take Elian to meet his father, but only on condition that he remains in his care.
The only breach in the otherwise united front on paternal rights has come from Vice-President Al Gore, who said again on Thursday night that a court should determine which branch of the family gains custody. Mostly, he said, the decision would favour the parent.
Mr Gore's stance, which has wavered but never been unambiguously in favour of the father, has led to charges of him "pandering" to emigrÃ© Cuban voters in Miami and may have lost him support elsewhere.