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Cuban dad is torn between 2 nations

Rafael Izquierdo and his daughter play in a Coconut Grove park recently. Months after he came from Cuba to fight for his daughter, Izquierdo is now in limbo in the United States.

Associated Press

Rafael Izquierdo and his daughter play in a Coconut Grove park recently. Months after he came from Cuba to fight for his daughter, Izquierdo is now in limbo in the United States.


The 5-year-old with hazel eyes and a bouncy ponytail swung across the monkey bars as her father, Rafael Izquierdo, proudly watched nearby, ready to catch her.

"Look at me go, Papi," she squealed, just before she dropped into his waiting arms.

In the six months since Izquierdo regained custody of his young daughter after a high-profile court case, the two have developed a deep bond. It is one they never shared when the girl lived in Cuba with her mother, let alone after she first came to the United States and sparked an intense, international custody battle.

Yet in reclaiming one child, Izquierdo has found himself separated from nearly everything and everyone else he loves. He lives alone with her in the U.S., jobless — a pariah to many Cuban-Americans who cannot fathom why he would want to return with the girl to the poverty-seeped, communist island their own families fled.

Last month, Izquierdo's pregnant wife Yanara Alvarez and their 7-year-old daughter Rachel returned to Cuba so Alvarez could take advantage of the country's free medical care during their son's birth. Mother and daughter have yet to receive permission from U.S. immigration authorities to return to Miami, Izquierdo's attorney said. Meanwhile, Izquierdo has received no guarantee that if he leaves for a weekend to visit them, he can return.

"I'm sad that I'm not there with them. What does a father want more than to be with his family and receive his son?" Izquierdo told the Associated Press, which has agreed not to use the girl's name.

Some days it is difficult for Izquierdo, a pig and potato farmer, to understand how he got to this place.

"In my village, I was never in the paper. People knew me, but I wasn't famous," he said.

It is a complicated story, one that has drawn comparisons to the 2000 fight over Elian Gonzalez. During a separation from Alvarez, Izquierdo had a brief affair and his lover got pregnant. After their daughter's birth, the woman took the girl to the U.S. with Izquierdo's permission. He stayed in Cuba with his wife.

But the woman was deeply troubled and soon lost custody of her daughter, who ended up with wealthy Cuban-American foster parents. They doted on her and wanted to keep her. The state government backed them. Its attorneys argued, among other things, that Izquierdo was unfit.

To complicate matters, the foster parents adopted the girl's older brother by a different father. If she went back to Cuba with Izquierdo, the siblings might be separated for years because of travel restrictions imposed by both governments. Eventually, Izquierdo cut a deal. He got custody of his daughter, but he can't take her out of the U.S. until May 2010, and her former foster parents get her for two weekends a month.

"With all those psychologists and therapists, it was confusing. She was suffering. In the long run, they were going to damage her. I had to dance to their dance," Izquierdo said of the agreement.

On a recent afternoon, Izquierdo's daughter boasted about his fishing prowess, and they argued over who would tell the story of his latest catch.

His daughter now calls Alvarez "Mami," and becoming "Mr. Mami" was no easy task for Izquierdo, especially after months of scrutiny from psychologists and lawyers over everything from breakfast choices to bath time.

"She asks so many questions. She is so smart. Sometime she astounds me," he said.

In recent months, he's learned to do ponytails and that Hannah Montana is cool.

Izquierdo says it was his older daughter Rachel who most helped the girl adjust to her new life with his family. And in a conversation, her name surfaces constantly.

"Papi, remember how Rachel taught me to dance?" the girl asked. "If Rachel were here, she would show me. I would be able to get all the way across the monkey bars by myself."

During the weekends, his daughter goes to her former foster parents, Joe and Maria Cubas, he passes time with a few friends and watches a lot of TV.

Izquierdo has yet to find work. After so much separation, he said he wants to find something that would allow him to be home with his daughter after school. Yet the economy is tough, he lacks a car and some potential employers and friends have told him they're afraid to help because they fear a backlash from the community.

The Cuban government hasn't provided financial support, he said, but since his public benefits ran out, a few people in the community have stepped up.

"I hate Fidel Castro," was the first thing his landlady Raiza Aguilar said when asked about Izquierdo. "But Rafael is not a bad person. … the first year in the U.S. is very difficult, especially with his wife and his daughter over there."

Cuban dad is torn between 2 nations 05/05/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:38pm]
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