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Shades of Elian in Miami custody battle

By Andrew Gumbel

A Cuban mother and her young child go to the United States. The child ends up in the care of politically connected anti-Castro exiles in Miami.

Then the father shows up from Cuba demanding his custody rights and asking to take the child back home.

That may sound like the Elian Gonzalez saga, the story of a six-year-old boy that turned into the biggest political stand-off between the US and Cuba in decades and cost Al Gore the furiously contested 2000 presidential election.

But it is also the broad outline of a new custody dispute involving a four-year-old girl, her mentally unstable mother, her only intermittently involved father and the prominent family of a Cuban-American former sports agent who made his name smuggling baseball stars from his native island into the US and is now acting as a foster parent.

The case has electrified a family courtroom in Miami for the past couple of weeks, not least because the mother's testimony has yo-yoed wildly, first in favour of the father's custody rights and then against them.

So far, the case has not taken on the political overtones of the Elian incident. The 2008 presidential campaign may now be heating up, but no candidate – and no other national politician – has yet chosen to give an opinion. Perhaps most significantly, the Miami child and family services agency favours keeping the girl – who has not been named – where she is, in foster care.

The girl and her mother, Elena Perez, left Cuba for the US in 2005, with the full permission of the father, Rafael Izquierdo. Ms Perez, however, attempted suicide a few months later, prompting Miami's department of children and families to remove the girl and her 13-year-old half-brother from their mother's custody. They ended up in the care of Joe Cubas, a former sports agent who is now a wealthy property developer and prominent figure in Miami's Cuban exile community. Mr Izquierdo arrived in Miami in June along with his new wife and said he wanted to take his daughter back to Cuba – hence the court hearing. The Miami authorities say he waived his parental rights when he let the child go to the US. They also say he was irresponsible in letting them go, given Ms Perez's mental state, and thus an unfit parent.

Ms Perez has thrown her support behind Mr Izquierdo's claim. But she has also told the court that letters to the girl from her father were fabricated with the connivance of his lawyers and photos he supposedly received from her in Cuba were in taken in a hurry over the past couple of months.

One of the challenges for the family court judge, Jeri Cohen, will be to decide if such allegations have any credibility. The Gonzalez case was more contentious all round. The boy's mother drowned while trying to cross the 90-mile stretch of ocean between Cuba and southern Florida, leaving Elian floating in an inner tube.

The father's claim to take Elian back to Cuba was loudly backed by Castro himself, while the anti-Castro exiles in Miami were anxious to claim the boy as their own. When the Clinton administration intervened on the father's behalf and launched an armed raid to wrest the boy from his Miami relatives' grasp, it caused an uproar in Little Havana.

Vice-President Al Gore sought to distance himself from the raid, but he still lost thousands of Miami Cuban votes in the 2000 presidential election – votes that could have avoided the 36-day post-electoral battle with George Bush and secured him the White House.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph