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Exiles: Cuba, too, divides families

While Havana wants to reunite Elian Gonzalez with his father, emigrants say their children are captives.

It has been almost six years since Jose Cohen last saw his wife and three children.

He left them behind in Cuba when he rafted his way to Miami.

Today, as Cohen watches news of the ongoing saga of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, he can't help thinking about his own family separation.

He is not alone among Cuban-American exiles in Miami.

The Elian case has obscured the plight of other Cuban children who are separated from their parents, by impediments not in the United States, but in Cuba.

"My wife and children are hostages of the Cuban government," Cohen said. "There's no legal or moral reason to stop my children from leaving."

Cohen and others who find themselves in a similar situation argue their treatment by Cuba is evidence that Havana is less interested in parental rights than the Elian case might suggest.

"In the United States people don't realize the kind of manipulation that goes on in Cuba," he said. "The government isn't interested in family."

Cohen admits his case is unusual.

The defection of the 35-year-old former Cuban intelligence agent to the United States was clearly an act of betrayal in Havana's eyes. Whether his family is being punished because of that is not clear.

His departure from Cuba, on a small boat in the dead of night, was also illegal.

"The regime can say I'm a traitor, but I just feel I was being honest with myself," Cohen said. "I'm not responsible for being born and brought up in a communist country."

Although it was impossible to verify all aspects of his story _ Cuban officials said they were not familiar with the details of the case _ documents provided by Cohen, and an interview with his wife in Havana, appear to corroborate his version of the family's predicament.

The son of a military officer in Castro's revolutionary army, Cohen was brought up a loyal Communist.

"Fidel was God for me. That's the doctrine I was educated with," he said.

A bright young mathematician, he was selected after graduating from college to join the state security apparatus. His job involved conducting surveillance on foreign businessmen in Cuba.

The experience exposed him for the first time to foreign ways of thinking.

"My mind went through a metamorphosis," he said. "I began to discover the reality outside Cuba. I began to realize that Cuba was a big prison and we were totally ignorant about how other people live."

Eventually, one night in August 1994, Cohen, his brother and two friends left Cuba on a rubber dinghy with a small motor. The engine gave out after only 10 miles. They were rescued three days later by fishermen off Key West.

In Miami, Cohen wasted little time making the leap from communism to the cutting edge of capitalism. After two years as a painter, he is now a successful e-commerce salesman.

His wife and children were given U.S. visas in April. But Cuba refuses to let them leave.

Cubans cannot depart their country without an exit visa. Despite protests from Washington, the Cuban government arbitrarily denies hundreds of exit visas each year, U.S. officials say.

In the case of young doctors and other professionals, Cuba insists that would-be emigrants first compensate the state for their years of free education, delaying exit permits by up to five years.

Cuba blames U.S. immigration laws, which favor Cubans fleeing communism, for encouraging people like Cohen _ and Elian's mother _ to leave the country illegally by boat.

Cohen's wife, Lazara Brito, has written letters in vain to Fidel Castro and other government ministers, asking for an explanation. Instead, she complains, officials have told her to forget about her husband.

"Whatever they may say, for me he's still the best husband and father," she said in an interview at her Havana home. "Because in all these years of separation my children have never lacked his love, a love which he can only give on the telephone."

In recent weeks, Brito says, she has been pained by what she describes as the double standards of Cuba's campaign for the return of Elian Gonzalez. Her own 8-year-old son, Isaac, was only 2 when his father left.

"In these days they (the Cuban government) have been talking constantly about the need for a father, and the need for a stable family," she said. "What can it have done to my children to be separated from their father for six years?"

She also rejects Cuban claims that family separation issues are handled in an entirely non-political, humanitarian manner.

"For six years my children have suffered the hatred and resentment of political interests here," she said. "My children are being used for political ends. They are being used to punish their father."

Their status has left his eldest daughter, Janelis, 16, in a Catch-22. Because she has a visa to leave the country, she has not been allowed to continue her schooling in Cuba.

Her younger sister, Jamila, 13, refused to participate in a government organized march of schoolchildren demanding the return of Elian. "No one is marching for me," she said. As a consequence, a teacher told Jamila that her grades would suffer for failing to attend a political activity.

Cuban officials say the Cohens' situation cannot be compared with Elian's. Cohen's decision to leave his children behind in Cuba was voluntary. Elian was taken from Cuba by his mother, apparently without the father's knowledge.

Even so, other cases suggest Cuba's regard for the family may be politically colored.

Luis Grave, 42, was a Communist Party militant and distinguished physics professor before he too began questioning the Cuban revolution after trips abroad.

After writing an unpublished text outlining his thoughts, he was sentenced to 13 years in jail in 1992 for "peaceful rebellion."

He was released after four years on the condition that he leave Cuba. He was assured his family would be allowed to join him.

Now studying for a doctorate in electrical engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Grave is still waiting. His three sons have all been given exit permits. But Cuba has refused to let their mother leave with them, citing "reasons of state" and "superior orders."

Despite the separation, both Cohen and Grave say they have no regrets.

"It's better to have a father far away who is alive and full of hope," Cohen said, "than a father who is close by but with no life."

_ Times staff writer Anne Hull contributed to this report.