This is how Elian's fairy tale was supposed to go: the loving father, Juan Miguel, had never been able to signal his true hopes for his son because Fidel Castro had him in chains. But once he broke free and made it to America, once he stepped off the Learjet at Dulles at dawn with his new wife and baby at his side, he would fall to the ground, kiss the tarmac and ask for asylum. Or maybe it would happen Friday morning, safe in the halls of the Justice Department, when he would look Attorney General Janet Reno in the eye and say thanks for all the help, but can we please just stay here? Then he could arrive in Miami in triumph, the angry vigil outside Great-Uncle Lazaro's house would turn into a carnival, father and son would be reunited at last, and all would live happily ever after in the land of the free.
That way, the really cruel choice would fade as the credits rolled. The father would get his child back, as a majority of Americans have hoped. Elian would get to keep his new puppy, drink chocolate milk to his heart's content and never have to go back to Cuba. Castro would be denied his trophy, his revolutionary crowds would disperse, and attention would fall once more on the dissidents he keeps throwing in jail. Republicans would welcome two new voters, the Clinton Administration would celebrate the rule of law, and the Cuban expatriate community in Miami would put to rest the impression that they fled one totalitarian state only to set up a satellite version across the Florida Straits. No one would be asked to choose between freedom and love.
But every chapter in this story has offered a twist, and last week was no exception. For the past four months no one could know for certain whether Juan Miguel was reading from a script, speaking from the heart--or both. But anyone who heard his passionate demand to be reunited with Elian, and his denunciation of the Miami relatives who had paraded his son in the streets and fed him to Diane Sawyer, had to believe he might be entirely sincere in his desire simply to retrieve his child and go home to Cuba for good. As Democratic Congressman Jose Serrano quoted Juan Miguel asking, "What do I have to do to prove that I love my child?"
He apparently proved it to Reno, who talked with him, in the absence of any Cuban officials, for more than an hour Friday morning. She wanted to see for herself: Was he really a loving father--and did he really, truly want to raise his child in a country where milk is rationed for children over 7 and soldiers drown citizens who try to flee? On the way over in the car, Juan Miguel's lawyer Greg Craig told him outright, "You are meeting with the highest law-enforcement officials in the land. It is an entirely private meeting. If you have any concerns or questions, feel free to raise them. Feel free to ask them for anything you or your family could want." Craig no longer has any doubts about Juan Miguel's intentions. "If he wanted to stay in this country," he says, "he could have asked."