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Battle over Cuban girl gears up

Associated PressVail, CO Colorado

MIAMI (AP) A Cuban father allowed his young daughter to emigrate legally to the United States with her mother to find a better life. But months later, the mother has become incapable of caring for the girl and the father wants to take the child home.It would seem a simple case, especially since the mother agrees her daughter should return to Cuba.Yet on the eve of the trial, a judge has warned that it could inflame the community, where the battle over Elian Gonzalez nearly eight years ago divided the city and became an international incident.Testimony is to begin Monday over whether 32-year-old Cuban farmer Rafael Izquierdo can regain custody of his 4-year-old daughter whose name is being kept secret or whether she should remain with a wealthy Cuban-American and his wife who want to adopt her.Until now, unlike Elians case, this custody battle has moved quietly through family court.But on Thursday, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jerri B. Cohen reluctantly lifted a gag order at the request of the girls foster father, Joe Cubas, 46, a former sports agent who has represented the New York Mets Orlando El Duque Hernandez and several other ballplayers who defected from Cuba. Cubas said he asked that it be lifted because he said he was getting many questions about the case.The judge warned that allowing the parties to speak to the media could have the possibility to inflame the community.Its going to explode, Cohen said. I know that as sure as I sit here. I cant prevent that.Still, civic leaders, many of whom fought hard to keep Elian from returning to Cuba, say they dont believe this case will spark similar reactions. The facts are different and neither the U.S. government nor the Cuban-exile community, burned by its negative portrayal during the Elian case, have a desire to repeat the past.Elian, then 5, was found floating at sea on an inner tube on Thanksgiving Day 1999, after his mother drowned with others attempting to defect to the U.S. The boys Miami relatives and many Cuban exiles insisted that Elian remain in this country, but immigration officials ruled in favor of his father, who wanted him returned to Cuba. A standoff ended only when armed federal agents raided the Little Havana home of Elians uncle to seize the boy and send him to Cuba.In the current case, both parents are in Miami and have agreed to participate in the U.S. legal system and both say the girl should go with her father.The reaction in the community has been incredibly mature up to this point, and Im sure it will remain this way, said Carlos Saladrigas, head of the Cuba Study Group, a nonpartisan group of business and civic leaders formed after the Elian case to promote democracy in Cuba through moderate channels.The case began in 2004 when the girls mother, Elena Perez, won the visa lottery to come to the U.S. with her son and daughter, each of whom has a different father. Both fathers agreed to let their children go with her.But after Perez was hospitalized in December 2005 following a suicide attempt, the children were put in foster care and ended up with the Cubas family. Perez agreed to let them adopt her son, now 13, but not her daughter.Izquierdo said he wants to take his daughter back to his family home in the central Cuban village of Cabaiguan, where he and his wife have a 7-year-old daughter.Her room is ready with and her bed and her little toys, he said Thursday.Perez agrees. Now that shes not going to her mother, she should go to her father, she said of her daughter. Those are the two best people in the world to be at the side of a child.An independent guardian appointed for the girl favors leaving her girl with Cubas. Several top attorneys for the Florida Department of Children & Families also appear to favor Cubas.Cubas said the girl, who calls him Papi, shouldnt be separated from her brother and doesnt want to go back to Cuba.I dont believe this is a matter of where their better life could be provided, he said. It is our belief, as is the wishes of the children, that they remain together and thats why were here.Cubas drew critics in the late 1990s who said he helped top Cuba ball players leave the island. In 2005, his sports agent certification was suspended following accusations by one defector that Cubas took his immigration documents and refused to return them. He has denied the allegations.Perez and Saladrigas said the communitys fear in both the Elian case and this one was that the fathers had been pressured to bring their children back by the Castro government.The concern is whether they are speaking from their heart or being coerced, and there is no clear answer to that. You will never know, Saladrigas said. If it wouldnt be for that it would be a no-brainer.


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