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Elian Deadline Again Extended for New Talks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the father of Cuban castaway Elian Gonzalez took the first concrete steps to come to America to claim his son, the government defused tensions in this edgy city Thursday by extending its latest deadline for the boy’s relatives to agree to surrender him.

Negotiations in Miami between U.S. immigration authorities, who are committed to reuniting Elian and his father, and lawyers for the Miami great-uncle who took temporary custody of the boy after his Thanksgiving Day rescue at sea ended at another impasse Thursday evening.

Lawyers for the great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, emerged from the second straight day of marathon talks with a brief announcement: Negotiations will resume Monday morning. In the meantime, as Cuban American activists staged civil disobedience protests outside Elian’s Little Havana home, the Justice Department pledged not to take steps to remove the 6-year-old from his surrogate family until Tuesday at the earliest.

Opening a new front in the four-month diplomatic war, the attorney for Elian’s father announced in Washington on Thursday that he was formally pursuing the father’s U.S. visa and that Juan Miguel Gonzalez is “ready at a moment’s notice to come” for his son.

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Attorney Gregory Craig said the boy’s father is willing to stay in the United States indefinitely--until his estranged relatives’ legal appeals are complete--but that he would do so only if the U.S. government guarantees “that he will have custody of Elian during that time.”

No such assurances were immediately forthcoming from either the Justice Department or the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which ruled three months ago that Juan Miguel Gonzalez has the legal right to his boy. And the Cuban government announced Thursday night that it would allow the father to go to the U.S. only if accompanied by an official delegation that includes 30 of his countrymen.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on Thursday clearly stated the Clinton administration’s position in the case.

“Elian should be reunited with his father,” declared Reno, a South Florida native who has come under intense fire in her hometown for issuing the ultimatum that was to have begun deportation proceedings against Elian at 9 a.m. today.

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When asked the importance of the father’s decision to come to the U.S. in resolving the conflict, she added: “It’s always better when families work matters out between themselves. They do a better job than government.”

As Reno’s attorneys in Miami sought yet again--unsuccessfully--to persuade Lazaro Gonzalez to sign a statement agreeing to surrender Elian if the great-uncle loses his court appeals, Reno added: “To drag this out does no one any good.”

Breaking with the administration Thursday, Vice President Al Gore endorsed legislation that would allow Elian to remain in the country while the courts decide his fate.

Blaming the custody crisis on Cuban President Fidel Castro’s “oppressive regime,” Gore said that action must be taken “to make sure that Elian’s best interests are served.”

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“It now appears that our immigration laws may not be broad enough to allow such an approach in Elian’s case,” Gore said in a statement issued in Washington.

Gore’s comments represented a shift from his earlier stance that the matter was best left to Florida’s family court. Presidential rival George W. Bush, who endorsed a legislative remedy in January, was quick to criticize the presumptive Democratic nominee’s “eleventh-hour position.”

“We’ll see what kind of influence he has in this administration,” the Texas governor said during a campaign stop in Milwaukee. “I’m glad the vice president has seen the wisdom of the way, and what he ought to do is convince the attorney general and the president to accept the same position.”

Florida is shaping up as a potential battleground in November, and the Cuban American vote is one Gore ignores at his peril. Although Cuban Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican, Clinton managed to win roughly 40% of the vote in 1996, a breakthrough that helped him carry the state after narrowly losing it in 1992.

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At the White House, a spokesman downplayed the split between Clinton and Gore. “The vice president will have different views from the president from time to time. That’s to be expected,” said Deputy Press Secretary Jake Siewert. “The president believes we should keep our focus on enforcing the law.”

Reno agreed. While saying that the Justice Department is willing to wait out the appeals, she was asked whether she is prepared to enforce the rule of law in the case.

“You bet,” she replied.

But she made an impassioned appeal for calm in Miami, where she was born, raised and served as state’s attorney. And she said her department has been “bending over backwards” to address the community’s concerns.

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Despite the Washington rhetoric, Thursday’s events appeared to shift the focus of the gnawing custody battle, which has so baffled Americans and Cubans alike, to Elian’s father, a cashier at a tourist park in the Cuban resort of Veradero.

Briefly stating the father’s case in Washington, lawyer Craig said he was applying for visas for only Juan Miguel Gonzalez, his wife and son and Elian’s favorite cousin.

None of them has seen the boy since Elian’s mother secretly took him from their hometown of Cardenas on a smuggler’s boat that capsized en route to Florida, killing her and 10 others.

Castro first announced the father’s willingness to come to America late Wednesday night as part of what the Cuban leader called a “perfect” plan to resolve this conflict, which has underscored as few before it the passions that divide Castro’s 41-year-old Communist regime and Miami’s 800,000 strong Cuban American community.

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Craig told reporters, however, that he will wait until U.S. authorities respond to Juan Miguel Gonzalez’s request for guaranteed custody before he tries to implement the rest of Castro’s plan.

In short, the Cuban leader blindsided the Clinton administration by proposing on state-run Cuban television that if Elian can’t come home right away to his Cuban family and friends, he will send the boy’s village to Elian.

Declaring that “the airplane is ready,” Castro proposed that the Cuban delegation would include Elian’s first-grade teacher, 12 of his classmates, his best friend, his personal physician and a battery of child psychologists to live with the boy in a Cuban diplomatic residence in suburban Washington and “re-integrate” him into his former life in Cuba.

While they all await the Miami family’s final appeals, Castro suggested, they could tour Capitol Hill, the Washington Memorial and other educational sites.

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Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga in Milwaukee and Mark Z. Barabak in Los Angeles contributed to this story.


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