Who will get the little girl?
That's the question creating a buzz in Miami and swirling memories of the Elian Gonzalez case.
A hearing Thursday was about the girl: how she was faring with her real father and how she was faring with the people temporarily in charge of her. It was about whether she was moving happily toward reunification with her father or clinging desperately to the people who have cared for her for a year.
It was also about tensions over Cuba and its government. And whether the child will leave the mansion on the bay in Coral Gables, with the yacht and pool out back, to go live in a small farmhouse 200 miles east of Havana. Many Cuban exiles in Miami strongly believe she'd be better off staying here. Her father says she belongs with him.
Which side will Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen back? Will it be the wealthy exile Cuban family, or the father from Cuba who has come for her?
Mother, father agree
According to transcripts, both the mother who has given the child up and the father who has come for her agree that she should be with the dad.
Normally, it is the goal of the Florida Department of Children and Families to reunite a child with a fit parent and honor the parents' "fundamental liberty interest in determining the care and upbringing of their children." But in this case, because Cuba is involved, the DCF is putting an inordinate amount of lawyering behind making sure the father is fit.
This need for reassurance includes lawyers' trips to Cuba to talk to relatives and neighbors, as well as a videocamera focused on the father much of the time he is with his little girl in Miami.
The child, a blue-eyed, redheaded 4-year-old, was not found floating in an inner tube at sea like Elian Gonzalez, who was at the center of an international custody dispute seven years ago. But there are still uncanny similarities between her situation and Elian's: Her parents divorced in Cuba. The mother left Cuba in 2005 with a new man, bringing her daughter and son, who has a different father, to the United States.
Her dreams of opportunity immediately fell apart. The new man abandoned her at the Miami airport with her two children.
After months of struggle, the mother called 911 and asked police to come get her kids because she was nearly suicidal.
They went to live with cousins of the man who had left, until a well-known businessman stepped in and whisked the children off to a mansion on the bay to live with his family.
He and his family already have adopted the girl's half brother, now a preteen. Cohen has made it clear that for the children's protection she does not want them identified.
Judge to decide soon
The wrench in the works has been the girl's papi in Cuba, a farmer in Cabaiguan who fishes the local rivers and takes a third of the profit from a government plantain and malanga farm.
Not wanting to give his daughter up, he petitioned for a humanitarian visa to come to the United States to take his child, who had not seen him for 2 1/2 years, back to Cuba.
During the Thursday hearing, the businessman stood up and said the children are "encountering the possibility of separation" and having "2,000,000 percent fear." His attorney, Alan Mishael, said the boy would petition the court to keep his sister here.
Right after, a call came from the court-appointed psychologist who was with the little girl and her father when he called. He said the child was showing "comfort and spontaneity" with her father, and they appeared to be "bonding." He also said that she was about to go swimming with her 6-year-old half sister, who is visiting from Cuba.
Cohen said she was concerned about keeping the siblings together, referring to the half brother. The father's lawyer, Ira Kurzban, protested, "But there's another sibling."
But, countered the judge, this was not the brother with whom she had lived.
Kurzban responded: "I hope you don't think a 12-year-old half brother should have more rights than the father."
Next week several of the attorneys for the DCF plan to go to Cuba to question more people about the father's fitness. On Aug. 13, the dependency hearing will take place, and Cohen will decide who gets the little girl.
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A similar case
Key moments in the highly publicized U.S.-Cuba custody case involving Elian Gonzalez: Nov. 26, 1999: Elian Gonzalez is released to his Miami relatives after being discovered floating in an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. Dec. 10, 1999: Elian's relatives apply for political asylum on his behalf. Jan. 5, 2000: U.S. immigration commissioner gives custody to Elian's father in Cuba. April 19, 2000: A federal appeals court grants the Miami relatives' request to block the boy's return to Cuba. April 22, 2000: INS agents seize Elian from his relatives.
Complied by Caryn Baird from Times wires