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Cuban Baptist leader, SBC’s Land differ over Elian’s return to dad

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The president of the Western Baptist Convention of Cuba, Leoncio Veguilla, has added his voice to returning Elian Gonzalez to his father.

The leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics agency, Richard Land, meanwhile, has taken the opposite stance.

Veguilla’s opinion was reported April 5 by the ChristianityToday.com Internet site, while Land voiced his views on the crisis surrounding the 6-year-old Cuban boy during the “For Faith & Family” broadcast of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission March 29.

Also joining the side of returning Elian to his father is a leading conservative congressman, Steve Largent of Oklahoma, who penned an op-ed piece for The New York Times April 4.

The father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, arrived in the United States April 5 with the intention of reclaiming his son, who was rescued at sea on Thanksgiving morning after his mother perished in an ill-fated boat escape from Cuba.

“I do not think that he should be returned automatically to Cuba,” Land, the ERLC’s president, told Baptist Press April 5, “and certainly not against his will.”

“His mother died to bring him here,” Land said on the March 29 broadcast. “Biological fatherhood does not confer completely overriding rights over anybody else, including Elian. Elian is a human being, Elian is a child, Elian is an individual.” The boy should not be considered “the property” solely of his father, Land said.

“His mother has a say here from beyond the grave,” he continued, “and I believe that the family is saying, ‘Look, the mother wanted him there.'”

If Elian’s father wants to be with his son, Land told his listeners: “Let the father come here. Let the father sacrifice for the rights and the wishes of the boy the same way the mother sacrificed by giving her life to bring this boy to freedom.”

Addressing the Clinton administration’s insistence that Elian be returned to his father, Land asked, “Don’t they understand what freedom is all about? Don’t they understand what this boy’s wishes are all about? That he has some right to say what happens to him, that his mother has some right to say what happens to him.”

Also on the broadcast, Land noted that ABC News decided against airing a portion of an interview with Elian saying he did not want to return to Cuba. The interview was conducted by ABC’s Diane Sawyer earlier in the month. Land criticized ABC’s rationale for not airing Elian’s wishes because the clip could fuel people especially in Miami’s Cuban community who are adamant that Elian should remain in the United States.

“Fidel Castro is the one who decided to make this an issue,” Land told Baptist Press April 5, citing a Wall Street Journal editorial that day as the latest to recap telephone records showing Elian’s father was aware in advance that his son was with his former wife in an attempt to flee Cuba.

“Juan Miguel Gonzalez is not a free man,” Land said of the father’s subsequent pleas for his son’s return. “No one in Cuba is a free man, except Fidel Castro.”

Land continued: “Mr. Castro has already declared that as soon as Elian returns to Cuba he will be treated by government psychiatrists to undo the damage done to him in America. That sounds like brainwashing to me.

“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,” Land said. “Elian’s best interest should be the paramount factor here.”

Veguilla, meanwhile, in visiting the United States in March, witnessed the criticisms being leveled by Miami’s Cuban community against Elian’s father and relatives in Cuba as unfit to care for the boy.

Nevertheless, Veguilla told ChristianityToday.com, “The boy should come back to Cuba. … When Elian grows up, let him decide what he wants to do.”

The Christianity Today writer, Mackie Landers, noted that “interviews with Havana pastors and national church leaders reveal that most evangelicals share Veguilla’s opinion.”

Landers described Veguilla as “no Castro cheerleader. In 1965 he began serving a five-and-a-half-year sentence for alleged ties to the CIA. In 1994, secret police arrested his son, Eliezer, and accused him of the same ties. Police ordered Eliezer Veguilla to confess or he would face a live bear he could see through a screen in his roach-infested cell. Later, state agents placed him before a firing squad for a mock execution. He was released and left Cuba in 1995 to live in the United States.”

ChristianityToday.com’s report also noted that the Western Baptist Convention of Cuba is not a member of the Cuban Council of Churches, describing the latter as “the pro-government counterpart to the U.S. National Council of Churches.”

“As a pastor, grandfather and father, I’d want my children and grandchildren to be where I am,” Veguilla told ChristianityToday.com, voicing doubt about the various charges from Miami’s Cuban community leveled against Elian’s father and the family in Cuba.

Hector Hunter, a superintendent in the Cuban Assemblies of God, told ChristianityToday.com, “For the good of the child, not for politics, it’s better for him to be with his family. I think whatever person in the same situation would say the same, independent of who controls or governs. The father should be taking care of him. I believe that because of the trauma this child has endured, for the loss of his mother, he should be with his father to console him. I believe that most people in the church would say that.”

Juan Cuevas, a pastor with the Evangelical League of Cuba in Havana Province, told the CT writer, “It doesn’t make sense that he’s there. He’s with a great-uncle he’s only seen once in his life. It’s terrible. He should come back to Cuba because his father is here.”

Olguita Perez, Cuevas’ wife and mother of their three children, told ChristianityToday.com, “They’ve turned a simple problem into a political problem on both sides. … In the United States he’s going to have economic opportunity, but people forget about the spiritual growth of the child. In Cuba, you have a hard time resolving economic problems. But what about the spiritual part? Only God and the family can develop a good life for a child. Most in Cuba believe this.”

Recounting that her own father abandoned her when she was a baby, Perez said she has never met him, though he still lives in Cuba, and she grieves the void in her life. “For this reason, although I may not have riches, I would have wanted to have been raised nowhere else but by my father,” Perez said.

One pastor, who spoke with the CT writer on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals to his denomination for expressing his opinion, said he fears for the boy’s emotional health following the harrowing voyage in which he saw his mother die and he spent two days alone tied to an inner tube.

“Children ought to be with their parents, but I understand now if Elian comes back, he’s going to suffer greatly because of the huge change,” the pastor said. “If he had come back in those first days, it would have been good. But now it’s been more than three months. I believe it’s going to be very, very conflictive for him to return. It has to have affected him greatly. Also, these months of cameras, judges and journalists — it all has to have affected his life.”

Steve Largent, in his New York Times op-ed piece, wrote, “Some conservatives see this case as a long-sought opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of Fidel Castro.” Describing himself as “second to none in my dislike for Mr. Castro’s totalitarian regime,” the Republican congressman nevertheless maintained, “But let’s be reasonable. Elian is a little boy who has lost his mother and desperately needs his father.

“This is a family issue, first and foremost,” Largent wrote.

In The Washington Post the same day, however, Jorge Masetti, a former agent of Cuba’s Americas Department now living in Paris, wrote, “Within Cuba — and this is the crucial point — the return of Elian will not be seen as an act of justice by the U.S. government but rather as yet another victory for the bully-boy tactics of Fidel Castro.

“This is why the dictator is trying to recover Elian,” Masetti wrote, “to convert him into a different kind of symbol — a symbol of the Revolution, even though for that to happen, Elian would have to renounce his mother, the family in Miami that took care of him and even, in fact, his father, Juan Miguel. Because upon returning to Cuba, he will not belong to his family. He will be another son of the Revolution.”