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Cuban Baptist leader corrects report about stance on Elian Gonzalez crisis

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Reuniting Elian Gonzalez with his father should be a family matter, not a political crisis, Eliezer Veguilla reported concerning the opinion of his father, Leoncio Veguilla, president of the Western Baptist Convention of Cuba.

Eliezer Veguilla, a Cuban exile in Miami, told Baptist Press April 12 his 69-year-old father wants his view set straight regarding the political standoff over the 6-year-old boy who was rescued at sea on Thanksgiving morning after his mother perished in an ill-fated boat escape from Cuba.

Tensions in Miami soared April 13 with the sudden announcement by the U.S. government of a 2 p.m. deadline April 13 for the boy’s relatives in Miami to return him to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who arrived in the United States April 5 with the intention of reclaiming his son.

In a ChristianityToday.com report April 5 on the Internet, the senior Veguilla was quoted as saying he believes Elian Gonzalez should be reunited with his father.

Baptist Press, in an April 6 news story, quoted the Cuban Baptist leader’s comments in the ChristianityToday.com report.

Eliezer Veguilla, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, said he discussed the quotes with his father in an April 11 telephone call. Veguilla said his father felt the article did not accurately reflect his view of the controversy surrounding Elian Gonzalez.

Baptist Press made contact with the senior Veguilla by telephone April 13 at the Baptist seminary in Havana, where he serves as president. Veguilla said his son is correctly reporting his view of the U.S.-Cuban standoff over the boy.

The senior Veguilla’s views, as relayed by his son April 12 to Baptist Press, now place the Cuban Baptist leader at odds with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s government.

It’s familiar territory, his son said.

“That’s the way he’s been for over 40 years,” Eliezer Veguilla. “Not only him but many others. He’s a hero to me and has been a survivor in the midst of the communist ways and has preached the gospel [with] ‘Cuba for Christ’ as his main focus. … My father has a great reputation of defending liberty in the country. What justice is, we’re going to announce it, whatever it costs us.”

It cost the senior Veguilla five and a half years in prison and two years under house arrest.

It cost his son, now 41, five months in prison in 1994 and 16 months under house arrest. In 1995, he and his wife and two sons were expelled from Cuba.

“Everything turns into a political question in Cuba,” Eliezer Veguilla said.

Leoncio Veguilla, in his third term as president of the Western Baptist Convention of Cuba, also is pastor of El Cerro Baptist Church in Havana, in addition to leading the Baptist seminary in Havana.

Eliezer Veguilla, a physician with specialties in internal medicine and intensive care, now works with the Open Doors ministry of Brother Andrew as director for Hispanic work in United States and Puerto Rico. He also makes several medical missions trips each year to Spanish-speaking countries and he is a member of the Baptist World Alliance’s Freedom and Justice Study Commission.

While in Cuba, he served as president of the Western Baptist Convention of Cuba’s youth department and is a former BWA youth department executive committee member.

Eliezer Veguilla said his father does not believe his comments were reported inaccurately on purpose by the ChristianToday.com reporter in Cuba. There may have been an incomplete understanding on the part of the reporter, Veguilla said, because his father must be careful in what he says to reporters in concern for how it may affect others in Cuba.

Eliezer Veguilla noted that his father’s views parallel those of Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, as quoted in the April 6 Baptist Press story.

Land stated, “The issue of whether Elian stays or returns to Cuba should be decided in a family court in the United States where people are free to express their true feelings and where free and independent psychiatrists can testify as to what is in the best interest of Elian, not just his father or the family in Miami. Elian’s best interest should be the paramount factor here.”

Among comments quoted from the senior Veguilla in the earlier news reports: “The boy should come back to Cuba. … When Elian grows up, let him decide what he wants to do.”

Recounting his father’s view, Eliezer Veguilla said, “…in this specific case, we’re not really encountering a simple case. The child is in the middle of a psychological trauma. He’s not just in any country — he’s being used by two political enemies.

“It’s really a family situation. … [It] should be resolved in a family court” in Florida. “Or the ideal is they would resolve it among the family.”

Leoncio Veguilla told Baptist Press April 13, that his opinion, as relayed by his son, “has any [relationship to a] political matter.”

“For nearly 50 years in Cuba … I have been preaching without hate,” Veguilla said from Havana April 13. “We are not afraid to be a minister to everybody in Cuba. We would like the best for our country — Jesus in the heart of everybody.”

Jim Oliver, an emeritus Southern Baptist International Mission Board missionary to Colombia now living in Montgomery, Ala., assisted in translating the interview with Eliezer Veguilla.