American relatives of six-year-old Cuban Elian Gonzalez have until midday today to agree to an accelerated appeals process or risk losing the child by the end of this week.
The take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum presented by the US Justice Department represents the end of the line for the relatives, who have looked after Elian in Miami since he was rescued from the shipwreck of a Cuban refugee boat last November and have fought to keep him in the US.
The beginning of the end was signalled last week when a Miami court ruled that Elian did not have the right to apply for political asylum. His uncle in Miami had applied for asylum on his behalf, but the judge ruled that the only person entitled to make such an application was the boy's father, Juan Gonzalez, who is in Cuba. In the absence of such a request, he said, the child should be returned. The only discretion, he said, rested with the US Attorney-General, Janet Reno.
Ms Reno, who has made no secret of her view that Elian belongs with his father, welcomed the ruling and pledged to have the child reunited with him "in a fair, prompt and orderly manner". She also made clear to the Miami relatives that there was no question, at least at present, of having the boy taken from them by force. Elian was one of only three survivors of the shipwreck; his mother - who shared custody of the child since divorcing his father - and her boyfriend drowned.
The judge's decision left officials with an unenviable dilemma. Exactly how could the Miami relatives be persuaded to give Elian into the care of his father after they, with the impassioned backing of southern Florida's powerful Cuban Ã©migrÃ© community, felt so strongly that he should stay in the US.
The last thing that the US administration wants, especially in an election year with the Vice-President running for the top office, are pictures of police snatching a weeping child from hysterical relatives. Nor do they want a triumphant Fidel Castro greeting a returning Elian as a national hero on global television. The officially orchestrated demonstrations which took place in Havana and other cities in the first weeks that Elian was in the US, have now resumed in anticipation of an outcome that would be seen as a political victory for Cuba.
This is the context in which the Justice Department delivered its ultimatum last week, and in which the Miami relatives must now decide what to do. Immediately after the ruling, they said that they would appeal. That appeal, which is yet to be lodged, would under normal circumstances take months to reach court, possibly leaving Elian in the US. There is nothing that states, however, that Elian should remain in the country until the appeal is heard - and the judge expressly opened the way for his return.
So the Justice Department's move is canny: it offers an accelerated appeal, justified by the young age of the child, to be heard by the regional appeals court in Atlanta within three weeks. During this time, Elian would be allowed to remain with his relatives in the US, on condition that they agreed to give him up voluntarily should they lose. If they refuse these terms, the department will revoke Elian's leave to remain in the US and return him to his father. An appeal could still be heard, but by then the child could be back in Cuba.
Juan Gonzalez, who has appealed for the return of his son almost since the day he learnt that he was alive and in the US, has now indicated his readiness to come and collect him.
Some Americans suspect that the Cuban authorities - who allowed Elian's grandmothers to come to the US to lobby on the father's behalf - fear that Juan Gonzalez might secretly want asylum for both his son and himself. While this is the outcome for which Miami's Cubans are rooting, it is also the one that Washington and Havana, for once united, will be fervently hope to avoid.Reuse content