Fatherhood Coalition

Emotions High in Area Regarding Elian Seizure

By Linda Bock and Carol McDonald, Telegram & Gazette staff

Sunday, April 23, 2000

WORCESTER-- Florimar Sarmiento said she thought she was getting tired of the Elian Gonzalez story until the predawn INS raid in Miami that led to his reunion with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, in Maryland yesterday. "While it was going on all these weeks, I was getting tired of hearing about it. I broke down in tears when I saw the way they took him out of his relatives' house in Florida. Later in the day, I was relieved to see him happy with his father," Mrs. Sarmiento said.

Mrs. Sarmiento, who is Puerto Rican, owns Sabanas Restaurant on Park Avenue with her Colombian husband, George L. Sarmiento. The Latin American restaurant draws many Hispanics, the couple said, and the young Cuban boy's plight has been the main topic of conversation for weeks. "It affected me a lot, and I'm not even Cuban. I think anyone with children would have to feel for Elian. Everybody I talked to yesterday thought the kid absolutely belonged with his father," Mrs. Sarmiento said. "The big mistake the government made was not immediately returning the child to his father," Mr. Sarmiento said.

There is a small population of Cubans in the Hispanic population in Worcester, maybe 10 percent to 15 percent, he said. "I agree with my wife, that child should be with his father. It is unfortunate that it came down to what happened. I have a 7-year-old son who looks kind of like Elian. I bet that most people here think that Elian should have been reunited with his father a long time ago," Mr. Sarmiento said.

Another local resident, Yolanda Zambrano, was born in Bogota, Colombia, and moved here nine years ago. "This is the country where my dreams came true," Ms. Zambrano said. "We all want Elian's dreams to come true. No matter what country he lives in." Ms. Zambrano said the political situation has absolutely nothing to do with the child. "It's two nations fighting each other. This has been a hard situation to watch because of that reason. Elian is just in the middle, and it's frustrating for all Americans," Ms. Zambrano said.

The boy has been a pawn in the conflict between the communist state of Fidel Castro and the politically influential community of exiled Cuban-Americans in south Florida. The wait will probably continue until a response from a federal Appeals Court in Atlanta, which issued a temporary injunction that blocked Elian from leaving the country, is settled.

Not everyone is convinced that the father will not wait for all the appeals before heading back to Cuba. Mark A. Charalambous of Leominster, spokesman for The Fatherhood Coalition, said he wouldn't be surprised if the father and son leave for Cuba. "Technically, it can be done," he said. "If they stay, we might be in for a real spectacle in the courts," Mr. Charalambous said. Family court custody battles are typically distressing and protracted, anyway, he said. "There is no real custody battle here. The child belongs with his father. We can't base where children live based on their governments. If that were the case here, should we take away the 7-month-old baby," Mr. Charalambous asked rhetorically, referring to Elian's younger brother. "This case, if it hits the courts, will do for the fathers' rights movement, what the O.J. Simpson case did to raise the country's consciousness on domestic violence issues," he added.

U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, the father of a young boy himself, is another supporter of Juan Miguel Gonzalez's right to have full custody of his son. "As a father and as someone who's spent time with Juan Miguel Gonzalez, I know he loves his son, and I'm glad his family is whole again," Mr. McGovern said yesterday.

With his wife and 2-year-old son, Patrick, the congressman spent two evenings last week with Elian and his father. "I'm absolutely convinced that he's a loving and caring father," Mr. McGovern said early yesterday afternoon. "We all would have wanted a method that was less traumatic for Elian, but they refused to budge," Mr. McGovern said of Elian's Florida relatives. "The good news is that no one was harmed. But it didn't have to come to this," Mr. McGovern said. "This has gone on for months. They had an AP reporter in the house. I mean, come on! It this was really about the boy's welfare, the family would have found a different way of handling it."

(c) 2000 Worcester Telegram & Gazette

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