NEW YORK - The grandmothers of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez got their first chance to tell the United States why they ventured from their home in Cuba to New York City at a news conference shortly after their arrival on Friday afternoon.
"If you want to help us, help us return Elian home," said Raquel Rodriguez, the child's maternal grandmother.
Paternal grandmother Mariela Quintana said, "We want to tell you we are free to say what we feel."
In response to the movement to make their grandson a United States citizen, the red-haired Rodriguez said, "Nobody has the right to make him an American citizen. He is Cuban. He was born in Cuba. He was raised there."
Rodriguez, mother of Elisabet Brotons, said she speaks for her late daughter, who died during the trip to the United State in November.
Proponents of keeping Elian in the U.S. say she died trying to give her son freedom. Rodriguez said her daughter was coerced by a violent boyfriend to come to the United States.
"I speak for her because I knew her well. I know how she thinks and how she behaved," Rodriguez said.
The grandmothers plan to stay in New York for a few days. They have no plans to go to Miami to retrieve the child.
But the dark-haired Quintana had some harsh words for those relatives:
"They have no right to keep the child there."
The grandmothers arrived via a chartered plane along with a three-member delegation of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the president of Cuba's Council of Churches landed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at about 3:30 p.m
In the next few days the grandmothers are expected to campaign to gain the support of Americans and reportedly may attempt to arrange a meeting in New York with the boy.
Elian has been the subject of an intense tug-of-war between his Cuban and Miami relatives after he survived when the smuggler's boat carrying him and his mother from Cuba to Miami capsized. His mother and 10 others drowned.
His Miami relatives have taken legal action to keep Elian in the United States, vowing he should not be raised under Communist rule in Cuba.
Spencer Eig, a lawyer for Miami relatives, said they had no intention of giving him up.
"That would be illegal. A court of law will now decide what happens to Elian," Eig said.
In another development, a Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said a group of members of Congress hoped to have ready by early next week a bill on the boy's status in the United States to prevent his return to Cuba.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service says only Elian's father can speak for the boy and he should be sent back to Cuba. The Miami relatives have filed a lawsuit demanding a political asylum hearing for Elian, saying he should not grow up under communism.
The battle has raged in the streets of Havana and Miami and even reached into the U.S. presidential campaign. Elian's mother and 10 others drowned when a smugglers' boat taking them from Cuba to Florida capsized. Fishermen found him clinging to an inner tube.
Cuban exiles in Miami vehemently opposed to Castro have adopted the boy as a mascot for their cause and the Miami relatives have paraded him before the media almost daily, claiming that he says he wants to stay in Miami.
Castro has made Elian's return a national crusade, accusing the Miami relatives of kidnapping the boy, and has mobilized thousands of Cubans in demonstrations demanding his return.
The grandmothers' mission adds another dimension to the case. Cuban families traditionally revere the grandmother. In Cuba, Elian lived some of the time with Rodriguez, the mother of his mother Elisabet Brotons Rodriguez, who worked at a tourist hotel before her doomed bid to reach the United States.
Members of the church council arrived Thursday in Cuba to persuade the grandmothers to return with them to the United States. After showing initial reluctance to travel without guarantees they could bring back Elian immediately, they had an apparent change of heart overnight.
The New York-based council, together with Cuba's Council of Churches, have been seeking to act as intermediaries in the dispute. Juan Miguel Gonzalez has refused to go to Miami, saying he could get trapped in political and legal moves.
Another lawyer for the Miami relatives, Jose Garcia Pedrosa, slammed the grandmothers' trip as a ploy.
"This is another effort by Castro to deviate attention from the mother who drowned, gave up her life to bring Elian to freedom and who he has branded a traitor to the revolution, so obviously the grandmothers are a way of trying to soften that," Garcia Pedrosa said.
Ros-Lehtinen told a news conference that Congress members group was "leaning toward" a bill to make Elian a U.S. resident although it did not rule out one to make him a citizen. The bill, sponsored by Florida Republican Sen. Connie Mack, would take the case out of the hands of immigration officials, she said.
"We hope to have the bill ready by Tuesday," said the Cuba-born Ros-Lehtinen, a staunch foe of Castro.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times