April 4, 2000

North Jerseyans add voices to Elian debate

By Jan Barry. and Elise Young. Staff Writers. The Record Online - New Jersey. Tuesday, April 4, 2000

UNION CITY -- As Cuban-Americans gathered around a Miami home to prevent Elian Gonzalez from returning to his homeland, hundreds of their North Jersey counterparts on Monday marched to demand that the boy remain in the United States.

"Freedom for Elian!" the marchers chanted in Spanish. "Freedom for Cuba!"

The marchers, 500 to 600 strong by the estimate of Mayor Rudy Garcia, were organized after the U.S. government granted visas to the child's immediate family, a step toward reuniting the 6-year-old and his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

"All Cuban people want Elian to stay here," said Julio Flores, 54, who identified himself as a former political prisoner. "In Cuba, the father has no right over what children do."

Elian's mother and 10 others drowned in November after they fled Cuba for Florida. The child was found floating on an inner tube off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving. Since then he has been in the custody of his great-uncle, and has become the subject of international controversy over where he belongs: in his communist homeland with his father, or in the United States with relatives.

On Monday, demonstrators in North Jersey took their message 14 blocks down Bergenline Avenue, to a parking lot outside the Cuban American National Foundation.

Some carried American flags; others waved Cuban flags. And although they assembled to draw attention to Elian's plight, they did not miss the chance to criticize Fidel Castro. Some carried signs accusing Castro of running drugs and harboring assassins.

"I'm here in support of Elian to stay in this country," said Alba Herrera, 37, of Colts Neck, president of the New Jersey and New York chapter of New Generation Cuba.

Herrera added: "I'd like to see a free and democratic Cuba, a Cuba where no one has to take a raft to find freedom."

The protesters marched peacefully down one side of the boulevard, through a Hispanic retail district. Police at each intersection halted the crowd so traffic could cross.

Along the way, Julio Flores' son, 11-year-old Julio Jr., videotaped the march with a palm-size digital recorder.

"This is a piece of history," said the boy, a sixth-grader at Woodrow Wilson School. "We're fighting over a single child, but it's going to affect the rest of the world."

In Miami, Elian's relatives have said they will follow any ruling by the U.S. government, and the Justice Department was working with them to arrange for Elian's hand-over.

But Julio Flores Sr. hoped the hand-over won't happen.

"Maybe if his father comes here, he himself will stay here," Flores said.

At the end of the march, some protesters lighted candles or waved flashlights. Garcia told the crowd that Castro was to blame for the custody fight.

"We ask only one thing for Elian: liberty," Garcia said, to wild cheering.

Copyright © 2000 Bergen Record Corp.



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