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Elian's return to Cuba draws mixed reaction in nation's capital

June 28, 2000
Web posted at: 7:07 p.m. EDT (2307 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Lawmakers in Washington both welcomed and mourned Elian Gonzalez's return to Cuba on Wednesday, reflecting the political divisions that have surrounded the case since the young boy was rescued off the coast of Florida last November.

Juan Miguel and Elian Gonzalez
Juan Miguel and Elian Gonzalez left the United States Wednesday to return to Cuba.  

During a White House news conference Wednesday, President Clinton said he wished that the ordeal "had unfolded in a less dramatic, less traumatic way for all concerned," but said that the administration made the right choice in supporting the boy's return to the communist island with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

"If he and his father decided they want to stay here, it would have been fine with me," Clinton told reporters. "But I think that the most important thing was the he was ... a good father, a loving father, committed to the son's welfare."

The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected an emergency request by Elian's Miami relatives seeking to keep the boy in the United States -- as well as an appeal seeking a political asylum hearing for him -- ending months of bitter wrangling over the boy that played out in the federal court system.

"I have replayed this in my mind many times, I don't know that we had many different options that we pursued, given how the thing developed," Clinton said.

President Clinton: "I have replayed this in my mind many times, I don't know that we had many different options that we pursued, given how the thing developed."  

Vice President Al Gore broke with administration ranks over the issue, saying the case should have been decided in Florida's family court system. Gore also offered to support legislation that would have granted Elian and his father permanent residency in the United States.

His opponents lambasted the move as a brazen attempt to attract votes in Florida, considered a battleground state in the upcoming presidential election.

Republican presidential hopeful George W. Bush had taken a similar stance on the campaign trail, but chided Gore for not using his influence within the administration to allow the custody dispute to be decided in family court.

Bush expressed disappointment over the boy's return to Cuba on Wednesday.

"I am saddened when the land of the free sends a young boy back to communist Cuba without a fair hearing in family court," the Texas governor said. "My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Gonzalez family, and I hope that one day Elian will live in a free Cuba and be able to choose for himself whether to return to America."

Congress reacts

Elian's fate produced a more heated debate on Capitol Hill, especially in the aftermath of Justice Department's decision to forcibly remove the him from the home of his Miami relatives during a pre-dawn raid on Easter weekend.

Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, a Cuban-born refugee whose Miami constituents fought to keep Elian in the United States, expressed sadness on Wednesday.

"It's certainly a lamentable decision, but I think it was a foregone conclusion," she said. "We knew the Clinton administration was hell-bent on sending him back to Cuba. It was just a matter of time."

At least part of the Hill debate was spurred by a series of photographs from the raid showing a terrified Elian in the arms of Donato Dalrymple, the man who plucked him from the sea last November -- both of them confronted by a federal agent brandishing an automatic rifle. Many congressional Republicans issued a call for hearings -- or at least a congressional inquiry -- after seeing the photos.

Democrats defended the administration's decision to remove the boy from the Miami home and warned the GOP to proceed with hearings at their own "political peril."

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York, expressed relief that the boy was on his way home and lashed out against those who tried to block his return.

"This little kid who was found abandoned in the ocean brought a face to the people who were in Miami -- a face that showed hatred, a face that showed ignorance, a face that showed they had no respect at all for the things that Americans believed in," Rangel said.

Earlier in the week, House negotiators struck a deal to loosen the food and medicine embargo on Cuba. Rep. Jose Serrano, D-New York, said that the seven-month Gonzalez saga played a major role in the House's decision-making.

"Elian's legacy is, in part, the fact that he brought attention through his tragedy to the relationship with Cuba," said Serrano. "That door has been opened, and that's the good news. And through the door we plan to push a lot of other issues."

CNN producer Ted Barrett contributed to this report.




Wednesday, June 28, 2000


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