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Both Sides with Jesse Jackson

Elian Gonzalez Custody Case: High-Profile International Tug of War Appears to Be Coming to a Close

Aired April 9, 2000 - 5:30 p.m. ET



The bitter international custody battle over Elian Gonzalez finally appears to be near an end. The young boy could be reunited with his father in just a few days. Today we're going to talk about why the case generated such an emotional response and whether the political and personal rifts it created can be healed.

Later in the program we're going to talk with a guest who has gotten to know Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, well over the past few months.

But joining me first from outside the home where Elian is staying is Ramon Sanchez. He is president of the Democracy Movement, an organization that supports democracy in Cuba. Welcome to the program.


JACKSON: We'll begin our discussion in a moment, but first this report from John Bisney.


JOHN BISNEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The international custody battle over Elian Gonzalez took a dramatic turn when Juan Miguel Gonzalez arrived in the United States Thursday to reclaim his son.

JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ, ELIAN'S FATHER (through translator): I've just arrived in Washington where I'll be soon able to embrace my son, Elian Gonzalez Brotons, for the first time in over four months. I'm here with my wife and 6-month-old son. This is Elian's true family and we love him very much.

BISNEY: But Juan Miguel Gonzalez has yet to be reunited with 6- year-old Elian, who remains in Miami with relatives. Negotiations between attorneys for those relatives and U.S. immigration officials broke down after the two sides failed to reach agreement no how to turn Elian over to his father's care.

JOSE GARCIA PEDROSA, ATTY. FOR ELIAN'S MIAMI RELATIVES: The government would not guarantee to us even if we made an agreement with them that the father, Juan Miguel, would not take the child to Cuba right away even during the pendancy of an appeal.

BISNEY: Since surviving the boating journey in which his mother and 10 other would be Cuban immigrants drowned last November, Elian has become a symbol in the larger political battle between much of Miami's Cuban-American community and the government of Cuban president Fidel Castro.

But while Cuban exiles in the U.S. view him as a hope, the arrival of Elian's father makes it more likely the boy will return to a country and a leader reviled by many in the United States.

For BOTH SIDES, I'm John Bisney.


JACKSON: Elian, there you are standing outside the home of Elian today and there are protesters behind you, but what is the general sentiment in the Cuban-American community now that Elian appears to be going back with his father?

SANCHEZ: Well, the Cuban-American community would love to see a family reunited. However, what we have been asking for is for Elian to have his day in court. This appears that it's not going to happen. I think there is a lot of sadness at this point. People are walking -- anywhere that you talk with him on the streets and you see that sadness and a sense of almost isolation, if you can call it that way.

JACKSON: But this is an international matter. The INS has spoken. The attorney general has spoken. Why do you think that a local or a states rights court could stop that decision?

SANCHEZ: Well, what we have been asking for since the beginning is for Elian's best interest to be taken into account. This is a separate issue from Elian being reunited with his father. Although, the issue is also involved. We still have hope and are -- will continue to struggle to see Elian be heard by a court of law. But now, unfortunately that, that is not going to be possible.

What we are doing at this point is trying to make people understand that, that moment of truth is coming, that the moment in which Elian might be returned to Cuba is very near and that we have to prepare ourselves to make sure that, that transition is the least harmful for the child.

JACKSON: You know, I've talked with Reverend Meeks and some of the other ministers of Chicago, around the country, they keep saying to me, the Book of Proverbs over and over again says that a child should not forsake the wisdom of his father. There is such a moral foundation for the father-son connection not to be broken by politics and ideology. Don't you stand on rather shaky moral ground for an ideology and politics over the blood relationship between father and son?

SANCHEZ: Well, we have said from the beginning and this is how we feel that this is a case that does not have anything to do with politics in our side, that our struggle has been of concerns for the future of this child due to the prominence and relevance that this case has obtained, that Elian Gonzalez faces serious dangers both psychological and also physical if he's returned back to Cuba to a dictatorship that pretends to control everyone, the minds of everyone, that has already said that Elian needs to be reprogrammed if he is returned back to Cuba, because this type of dictatorship cannot afford a person having -- speaking their own mind.

And in the case of Elian, Fidel Castro has put a very, very powerful campaign behind him, he cannot afford Elian three or four years from now standing in public and speaking to the media and saying, I didn't want to come back here, I was not kidnapped in Miami.

JACKSON: But is this issue about Elian or is it really about Castro? If it's about Castro, the kid has been used as a kind of trophy. Is this issue about Castro, or is it about Elian?

SANCHEZ: It is about Elian and you cannot avoid Castro, of course. It is like if you were now struggling to send a child back to Hitler's Germany, you cannot avoid the issue that Hitler is -- was part of Germany at that time. This has been our concern, of course. There have been thousands of -- or there are millions of children in Cuba living there, but in the case of Elian Gonzalez, because of these elements that I have explained, it makes him subject to more psychological harm and even physical harm than any other child in Cuba.

JACKSON: But isn't it a bit extreme to refer -- to make Castro in a class with Hitler, whose war killed millions of people, a set of ovens to kill people. More people have died in Haiti than died in Cuba. So when you use the Hitler example, isn't that a bit extreme?

SANCHEZ: No, I'm trying to -- of course, there is a difference in numbers, but the attitude is the same. Thousands and thousands of people have been executed in firing squads in Cuba and put through prison and through -- and put through psychological brainwashing for 41 years. And the issue here is this child is going to be deprived of fundamental civil rights if he is returned back to Cuba, and nobody -- nobody wants to look at this unfortunately.

JACKSON: The question becomes when we come right back, if the child goes back to Cuba, how should we deal in the future with Castro? We'll be right back.


JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I wholeheartedly reject Cuba's system of government. Mr. Gonzalez and I do not share the same political beliefs, but it is not our place to punish a father for his political beliefs or where he wants to raise his child. Early next week, we will give the relatives instructions on when and where Elian is to be turned over to his father and at that time the INS will formally transfer parole and care to the father.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) JACKSON: To understand the reason, if you cannot stop Elian from going back to Cuba that you will now work to make life better for those who are in Cuba? For some diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba and Castro?

SANCHEZ: We'll do our best for this other stage that now begins, to make sure that Elian is harmed the least possible psychologically and to make sure that the people here also understand this. This is something that goes very deep into people's hearts here. There are tears everywhere. There is a lot of sadness here, and we have to do our best effort to make sure that we help people cope with this experience.

JACKSON: But the point is, if we increase our diplomatic ties with Cuba and trade ties and build bridges, will that not relieve all Cubans and Cuban-American families of this stressful separation?

SANCHEZ: I would love to see real family contact, but unfortunately the obstacle here has been the Cuban government throughout the 41 years that we have been with this dictator in power. He has divided the Cuban family -- 20 percent of the Cuban population lives outside the country. Each family unit has been divided. Even Castro's own daughter and his sister live in exile. So it has been a traumatic experience.

But I would love to see -- and we will do everything within out power -- to see that this case maybe initiates a new era in which the Cuban family can reunite in Cuban territory and be able to work all together to build a democratic society in our country...

JACKSON: Well, in our foreign policy...

SANCHEZ: ... Castro unfortunately remains the obstacle.

JACKSON: In our foreign policy, we encourage Barak to talk to Arafat. The Israeli-PLO has been a very tough one. We encourage Mandela to talk to De Clerk in South Africa. We encourage that there be Began and Sadat, U.S. and China. When you encourage a U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, does it take pressure off the Cuban families and reunite those families?

SANCHEZ: Definitely, we need to revise our foreign policy and have a fresh approach. But we must be careful that in doing so we don't help Castro's agenda instead of helping the Cuban people be free. There are being many things said about, for example -- and I am not a supporter of the embargo -- but about the embargo and how it makes the Cuban people poor and all these things, when in reality Castro has his stores full of items that you sell -- that you see selling in any capitalist society. And yet those items don't get to the people, because lack of food, shortage of food and medications are to some degree -- and has been for many, many years in Cuba, a way in which Castro controls the masses, by having them stand in long lines day after day, thinking only of the food instead of thinking of the next president.

JACKSON: But my point is do you not believe that more access to diplomacy, more to trade, more to travel, more Cuban movement in Cuba would, in fact help to change the atmosphere, even to change Castro's political options?

SANCHEZ: I think -- I think that more people-to-people contact, a real people-to-people contact will help. However, government-to- government contact that we have seen up to now and that perhaps is advocated by many, I think will have the effect of maintaining Castro in power longer. He will continue to implement the oppressive policies that he has up to now against the Cuban people and not allow a true Democratic process to get on its way.

JACKSON: You know, we've built bridges to Russia and the Berlin Wall came down. We are now building bridges to China, a bigger, even more oppressive societies, bridges between Mandela and De Clerk. Won't you give diplomacy and trade and more contact a chance? In that way, you can help Elian and all the other little Elians who are now in Cuba. Wouldn't that be the big move for you to take now as a democracy movement?

SANCHEZ: We are willing to build any bridge, but a bridge needs two sides first. Our side is willing. What about the other side?

JACKSON: Well...

SANCHEZ: We haven't seen that.

JACKSON: But those who have the most strength and the most grace should build the most bridges. Assuming he is not strong enough to build a bridge, you are. And maybe that first step might trigger a response. Why don't we give diplomacy and trade a chance?

SANCHEZ: We have been doing that. We will continue to do that. But, for example, a very essential thing, which is the right -- for example, my right to return to my homeland peacefully has been denied to me by the Cuban dictator because I think different from him. I think that gives you an idea of what would happen if anyone here in the entire community would say, OK, we'll put all the -- anything -- everything else aside. We're just going to go there as plain citizens and let's begin talking about changing things in Cuba.

Castro does not want to hear that because he knows that that will cost him power. There are a lot of dissidents inside of Cuba who just because they say that Cuba belongs to all are doing six and seven and eight years in prison. And these are the realities of the Cuban scenario.

JACKSON: Well I brought some Americans down to Cuba some years ago. I submit this to you. If this week if Barak and Arafat can meet with President Clinton in Washington to try to bring walls down between PLO and Israel, if we could give that same diplomatic chance in Cuba, we might begin to save Elian and all the people.

I want to thank you and of those today who are going to respect the law as this process unfolds. Thank you very much for being our special guest today. Next we're going to talk with a Methodist minister who has met with the Gonzalez family, has gotten to know them very well. We'll talk about this very special acquaintance.

We'll be right back.


JACKSON: And joining me now is Thom White Wolf Fassett. He heads the international rights organization of the United Methodist Church. Mr. Fassett also accompanied Juan Miguel Gonzalez to the U.S.

You have met with this father. How did you come to know him?

THOM WHITE WOLF FASSETT, UNITED METHODIST CHURCH: Well, about the first of March, we were -- we received gestures from the Cuba Council of Churches, with whom we have a very close relationship through the Council of Churches in the United States to see if there were some -- if there was some way we could provide assistance for Juan Miguel, Elian's father.

And we searched around, got the best advice to see if we could contact a lawyer who might represent him in the United States. And Joan Brown Campbell and I went to see Gregory Craig to ask him if he would consider such a proposition, and he was very interested in it.

JACKSON: The father?

FASSETT: No. Then we went to Cuba...

JACKSON: Then to Cuba.

FASSETT: ... on March 1, 2, and 3 to meet with Juan Miguel and his entire family, as a matter of fact -- the two grandmothers, the two grandfathers, the great-grandmother -- for almost half a day.

JACKSON: What do you know about him?

FASSETT: What do we know about him?

JACKSON: What were your impressions?

FASSETT: He is a man who is very passionate about his son. He is a person who is single-minded in retrieving his son. And as we sat around the first day, the family was horribly moved by the fact that others were coming to the country to ask what they could do.

It was a time for the lawyer, Gregory Craig, to talk with Juan Miguel to determine if in fact he wanted his counsel. And he took him aside privately, along with his associate who spoke Spanish, to ask and determine if he had unobstructed decision-making responsibility for himself, and to ask him privately, without any other person, if he wished to have him represented. And he did.

So we're about the task of raising funds now, as United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society. JACKSON: Well, how did the church decide to get in? This is a big decision, to get involved in this case.

FASSETT: Well, it's a very big decision. We're no strangers to the issues of Cuba nor the issues of children. For decades, we've been working on children's rights and advocacy with respect to hunger and clothing and violence in the media and all things that would tend to support the rights and the needs of children. So we're no strangers to the issues of children.

We're located here on Capitol Hill. We're no strangers, either, to dealing with the Cuban embargo. We're probably one of the most prominent denominations opposing the embargo.

JACKSON: Why do you think this particular case now has caused such a furor?

FASSETT: It's a difficult thing. You know, I have two little friends who are watching this program, Emily and Samantha in the western part of New York State in Hector, and they have the answer to this entire dilemma. They're little children, and it's about children. And they know something about parents, and they know about the combination of the two and how security is produced through that special love.

And we're missing the point here, I think. And the children around the United States, as I travel and talk with them, know that the answer is this is an issue between a child and a parent. So we're trying to do our very best to deal with the issues of parents' rights and at the same time dealing with a very sophisticated argument between two conflicting ideologies.

JACKSON: So given the nature of that government, Elian leaves this country with his father and goes back to Cuba, you'll have no misgivings, no apprehensions, no guilt about what might happen then to him?

When we come, I want to ask you to talk about this, what will happen when he gets back on that ground. We'll be right back and I'm going to finish up this dialogue with Mr. Fassett.


JACKSON: We're back in our final segment. Welcome.

When Elian hits Cuban soil this week, will he be taken off immediately and reprogrammed into some school or something? What will happen to him?

FASSETT: Many people have a very, very altered views of Cuba, and with all due respect to Mr. Sanchez -- and I want to thank him. I want to thank his colleagues. I know some of -- and I respect the experiences they've had.

But when Elian goes back with his father, Juan Miguel, he will be returned to a loving family. He will be returned to a country where many people would be surprised is flourishing with churches -- the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the two fastest-growing Protestant churches in Cuba. Surrounded by people who love him and a community that will receive him. And the reports about Juan Miguel's inappropriate behavior is -- discipline of his child is completely out-of-order. I heard it voiced about all day today on the media that he has harmed his child.

Well, this man is a loving (UNINTELLIGIBLE). There is testimony to say this child would not be in such wonderful shape at the moment if he hadn't had wonderful...

JACKSON: Given this rift between Cuban-Americans and the federal government...


JACKSON: ... between the U.S. and Cuba, what can be done now to facilitate healing?

FASSETT: It's time to look at removing the embargo. Then we can have a free -- a free exchange between the two nations.

JACKSON: I want to thank you for coming, and thank our guests today from Miami.

Suffice it to say that this crisis really could be an opportunity for new Cuban-American relations. Let's build a bridge. If we can encourage Arafat to talk with Iraq this week in Washington, U.S. to talk with China, for Mandela to talk with De Clerk and Begin with Sadat, let's encourage our leadership to talk with Castro. Let's build bridges, and when we build those bridges, there can be healing between families and between nations.

That's all for this week's program. I'll be back next Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. Again, thanks for watching and keep hope alive.

"WORLDVIEW" is next.



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