TOPICS > Politics

Tug of War: Elian Gonzalez

April 7, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And for that we’re joined by Roger Bernstein, one of the lawyers for the Lazaro Gonzalez family.

You heard Mr. Cooper. This reunion is going to take place. The tone has changed from one of request to one of instructions. What is the family’s reaction?

ROGER BERNSTEIN, Lawyer for Miami Relatives: Well, we think that is unfortunate. We think the Justice Department has been placing unreasonable demands on the family from the very start, and we have desperately sought some sort of fair negotiation that takes into consideration Elian’s well-being. As you know, the Department of Justice has never sought a psychological valuation of Elian Gonzalez but yet it pretends to understand what is best for him.

What we have encouraged throughout this week in negotiations is, as a first step, to have Elian evaluated psychologically, rather than simply making demands that he be immediately transferred; we think that is unwise. Our psychologists, we’ve had three independent psychologists who evaluated Elian said it would cause him horrible psychological harm if he is suddenly ripped away from this family. There needs to be a process of smooth integration where Elian’s well-being is taken into careful consideration, not simply a one-day process where he is thrust in front of a panel of experts to determine his fate. That is unreasonable and not well thought out.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the attorney general has summoned the family and its representatives to a meeting that would include psychologists to work out the methods for the transfer of custody. Will you advise members of the family to be at that meeting?

ROGER BERNSTEIN: Certainly we will advise members of the family to be there. But the point is, is that the government’s position has been unwavering. They are saying we have to effectuate the transfer but if Elian’s emotional state is such that the transfer would cause irreparable harm to him, is such a transfer wise at this point in time?

RAY SUAREZ: Are you certain that the government’s plan to effectuate this transfer would not take this into account that these psychologists who are going to be at the meeting Monday morning will not have some plan in mind to make this a transition, rather than an abrupt change?

ROGER BERNSTEIN: Well, the point is they are saying how the transfer is to take place. If the psychologists and our independent psychologists are telling them that that is not a good idea, then perhaps the government needs to take that into consideration.

RAY SUAREZ: The law, according to the INS and now the Justice Department, seems to be quite clear on this matter. And they have said all along that once the father was here, there were very few ways that the boy could legally be kept away from them. Under what basis would you argue with that notion, that they’ve been putting forward earlier on the program?

ROGER BERNSTEIN: Well, the law is clear in terms of Elian’s rights to have a direct appeal. And in this instance, the INS has given us no written assurances… and this was the sticking point in our negotiations, that if Elian is reunited with his father, that… no written assurances that he won’t be abruptly returned to Cuba. And the focal point of the claim for asylum is that Elian would be harmed if returned to Cuba.

Cuba, as you know, is a totalitarian regime that has no respect for political and civil rights. And we are extremely concerned that if Elian is returned, he would be, in essence, brainwashed, taught that his loving mother, his stepfather, were traitors to the revolution that, in essence, he would be a poster boy for the revolution. He would not have the freedoms that you would hope a boy would enjoy. And, irrespective of the dubious wishes of the father, Elian has the right to a hearing and to be heard on these issues. But the government has given us no assurances that that will take place.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier you heard the attorney general say that she, herself, does not agree with Juan Miguel Gonzalez politically; nor does she agree with the manner that Cuba is run, but it’s very hard to let that enter into these kinds of determinations. We would change the definition of family. How do you respond to that?

ROGER BERNSTEIN: Well, I don’t think this is a question of what political ideology Juan Miguel has. This is a question of whether this boy will be harmed if he is returned to Cuba. And that is the utmost consideration is not the father’s right but the child’s rights. And let’s be serious, Ray. The real question here is not in the biological father, that Elian would be returning to, but that he would be returning to Fidel Castro as the father of the Cuban state.

The Castro government has stated in no uncertain terms that if Elian returns, he is essentially property of the Cuban government. And that is not healthy for this boy. That is not in this boy’s best interest. He will be harmed horribly if he is returned to Cuba. And that is Elian’s right to be heard. And the government will give us no written assurances that this appeal will not go forward. They have the power, they have the authority to bind Juan Miguel; but they have not.

RAY SUAREZ: At one time during the last four months, members of the family said that if Juan Miguel Gonzalez came to this country, they would welcome him here, and that, yes, he could have his son back. What changed between these earlier periods and now?

ROGER BERNSTEIN: That is an absolute misstatement of our position. What we have said all along is that Juan Miguel should come to the United States, be with his boy and participate in the judicial process — not that he would suddenly be returned to Cuba without a hearing. The regulations that guide this are very clear.

They say that if there is an application for relief that is against parental interest, the parent should participate in the process. What has happened here, instead, is the government went to a totalitarian regime, where Juan Miguel couldn’t possibly speak his mind, and asked him what he wanted for his child. It doesn’t matter if this was conducted in a safe house. Juan Miguel Gonzalez had to go out of that house and face Castro over and over again for a four-month period.

The American people should be very skeptical. Four months have passed. Juan Miguel is under the thumb of Fidel Castro and has yet to be able to meet with this family freely and discuss what he truly wishes for this child.

RAY SUAREZ: The attorney general and Mr. Cooper earlier were very clear to point out that there were several meetings with the boy’s father that were held with no agents of the Cuban state around — with no intersession from the Cuban state, and they are willing to take his story and testimony at face value. Can you?

ROGER BERNSTEIN: No, we can’t. But we would … consider this: The statements that were provided were not under oath. They were in a setting in Cuba with a full recognition that these statements would become public and they did actually become public in the federal litigation. Juan Miguel couldn’t have said, for example, yes, I want my boy to grow up in freedom. He could not say yes, I was aware my wife was leaving with the child – because he would be violating Cuban law. And when the State Department recognizes that there is no free speech in Cuba, to go to Cuba and interview the father and rely on those statements is inconsistent.

RAY SUAREZ: All along, you’ve been quoted in the press as saying that you have been advising your clients and have never had any doubt that they will obey the law. How can they both continue to hold on to the child, if they feel that that’s in his best interests, and obey the law when things seem to be changing and rather quickly?

ROGER BERNSTEIN: Well, all along our client — Lazaro Gonzalez — has said he will obey the laws of the United States and the state of Florida. He was entrusted by INS and Juan Miguel Gonzalez at his request to take care of this child. And he has done so in a very loving and responsible manner. At this point in time he has said if the government seeks to take Elian from his home, he will not impede them in any way.

What he will not do is what he feels is morally reprehensible, which is to allow this child to be returned to Fidel Castro and assist in that process. There is also, I should point out, a state court order that prohibits Elian from being removed from the jurisdiction of the state of Florida. So, legally he would be violating Florida law if he participated in having Elian removed from the jurisdiction of the state of Florida.

RAY SUAREZ: Roger Bernstein, thank you very much.

ROGER BERNSTEIN: You’re very welcome.