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Thursday, 3 February, 2000, 20:47 GMT
Cuban families separated by politics

cohens The Cohen children: Have grown up without their father

By Tom Gibb in Cuba

The custody battle over six-year-old Elian Gonzalez has starkly shown how one Cuban family has been divided by the bitter political divisions across the Florida straits.

His relatives in Miami want to keep him there. His father and grandparents want him back in Cuba.

In both countries, the case has become highly politicised. While Elian Gonzalez' situation is an extreme example, there are many other Cuban families, like the Cohens, caught in the middle of the long conflict between Fidel Castro and the United States.

A family without a father

Isaac was three when he last saw his father Isaac was three when he last saw his father
Eight-year-old Isaac Cohen is climbing his favourite tree. He has a faint memory of being carried here five years ago, on the shoulders of his father, then a captain in Cuba's interior ministry.

Shortly afterwards, his father, Jose Cohen, defected to Florida on a raft.

His wife Lazara and her three children were granted US visas to join Jose four years ago.

However, the Cuban authorities will not let them leave. Fidel Castro views defectors from the military as traitors.


Their families are kept in Cuba to stop them talking and punish them. Lazara Cohen feels trapped.

Lazara Cohen: Frustration Lazara Cohen: Frustration
"My children are simply hostages of the Cuban authorities," she says.

"I have no doubt about that now. Their father thought differently - against what the government stipulated. As they cannot get him, they are holding me and his family instead."

For two years, Lazara has been writing letters to government ministers and even Fidel Castro.

She receives anonymous replies under the door. One letter reads: "You'll never leave - forget it."

They are being used to limit and punish their own father - the man who they love the most. It's something so rotten, I have no words to express it
Lazara Cohen, wife of exile
The rallies shown every day on television demand the return of Elian Gonzalez. The propaganda talks about the importance of fathers and denounces the political manipulation in Miami.

Lazara sympathises - but cannot help thinking of her own family.

"And my children. What are they being used for?" she asks.

"It's so obviously for political ends. Obviously. They are being used to limit and punish their own father - the man who they love the most. It's something so rotten, I have no words to express it."

Long wait for US visas

It is not always the Cuban Government. Many here have to wait years for US visas.

One man has not seen his son for eight years and he has never seen his three-year-old granddaughter. He has been denied a visitor's visa.

The United States does however usually give immigrant visas for reunifying parents and children - although the wait can be years.

Yanely: Punished for not attending Elian rally Yanely: Punished for not attending Elian rally
Cuban officials say that their denial of exit permits to the families of defectors is not the same as Elian's case. If one parent leaves, they say, with their family still on the island - that is their decision.

The result is, however, that Jose's children have grown up without a father. Sixteen year old Yamila has been unable to get into pre-university courses because she has applied to emigrate.

Her younger sister, Yanely, had her marks reduced last month for not attending a send-back-Elian rally.

Many Cubans would like to see an end to the political hostility, which divides their families. However, that is still a long way off, as the Elian Gonzalez row has shown.

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See also:
03 Feb 00 |  Americas
Elian: View from Cuba
01 Feb 00 |  Americas
Head to Head: The Elian Gonzalez case
01 Feb 00 |  Americas
Tug-of-love over Elian
29 Jan 00 |  From Our Own Correspondent
The Dalai Lama of Little Havana
06 Jan 00 |  Americas
Analysis: US-Cuba relations in the spotlight

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