Cuban boy saved from sea sets off a diplomatic row

A FIVE-YEAR-OLD Cuban boy who clung to the inner tube of a tyre for two days after the boat that had been carrying him and 12 others from Cuba to Florida sank last week is now at the centre of a political and legal confrontation between Washington and Havana. He may have to go home again.

Ten of those on board the flimsy speedboat, which left the north coast of Cuba on 21 November, drowned when the craft lost its engine and flipped over in heavy seas. The first two survivors, both adults, were found holding on to an inner tube by the US Coast Guard last Thursday. Hours later, fishermen near Fort Lauderdale, found the boy, Elian Gonzalez, grasping a second inner tube.

Elian's story - combined with the fact that among those who drowned were his mother and stepfather - melted hearts in America, especially among Cuban exiles in Florida, and immigration officials agreed to allow the boy to stay, in the care of some relatives in Miami.

But yesterday Elian's future was once more in the balance. The child's parents had been divorced and President Fidel Castro's government is alleging that the boy's mother kidnapped him for the voyage to America. Elian's father wants him back and is demanding that his son be returned to Cuba.

Havana has meanwhile blamed the United States for the incident, saying that it had sent a message to the US Coast Guard early last week warning of the impending arrival in US waters of the speedboat.

"The entire responsibility for these new and painful deaths falls on the government of the United States because of the senseless way that illegal immigration is promoted, stimulated and rewarded from that country," the Cuban Foreign Ministry declared in a message broadcast on Cuban radio.

The US Coast Guard has confirmed that it received the message. It says it dispatched ships and aircraft to hunt for the boat but that they spotted nothing. "We did act on that," a spokesman insisted.

In recent years, Cuba and the US have co-operated on discouraging Cubans from making the dangerous journey to Florida. The US generally gives asylum only to those who reach dry land but sends back those who are picked up at sea, however close to shore they may be. Determining the fate of young Elian will be extremely hard. Do his rights as a refugee, however young, override those of his father? Should his mother's last wish - to bring her son to America - be respected? Should anyone assume he will have a life of greater opportunity and happiness in the US?

It is a legal and moral dilemma and, inevitably, a political one also. Anti-Castro groups in Miami have quickly turned Elian into a major cause. Pictures of the boy, with rhetoric excoriating the Castro regime, have already been sent to delegates of the World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle.

"This is a unique one, because he came with a mother who died at sea," said Bernie Perlmutter, of the University of Miami's law school. "A parent has an inveterate right to the ... custody of his own child. On the other hand, if the child has a desire to stay and is old enough to articulate that desire, it is conceivable that might outweigh the rights of the parent".

The relatives who have now given Elian a home say he has already made clear what he wants. "He told me he didn't want to go back," said his great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez. "All I know is Elian is happy here".

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