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Cuban father pays price for custody of daughter

By LAURA WIDES-MUÑOZ
AP Hispanic Affairs Writer

MIAMI, May 3, 2008 (AP): The 5-year-old with hazel eyes and a bouncy ponytail swung across the monkey bars as her Cuban father Rafaél Izquierdo proudly watched nearby, ready to catch her.

``Look at me go Papí!'' she squealed, just before she dropped into his waiting arms.

In the six months since Izquierdo regained custody of his young daughter after a high-profile court case, the two have developed a deep bond. It is one they never shared when the girl lived in Cuba with her mother, let alone after she first came to the U.S. and sparked an intense, international custody battle.

Yet in reclaiming one child, Izquierdo has found himself separated from nearly everything and everyone else he loves. He lives alone with her in the U.S., jobless—a pariah to many Cuban-Americans who cannot fathom why he would want to return with the girl to Cuba.

In March, Izquierdo's pregnant wife Yanara Alvarez and their 7-year-old daughter Rachel returned to Cuba so Alvarez could take advantage of the country's free medical care during their son's birth. Mother and daughter have yet to receive permission from U.S. immigration authorities to return to Miami, Izquierdo's attorney said.

Meanwhile, Izquierdo has received no guarantee that if he leaves for a weekend to visit them, he can return.

``I'm sad that I'm not there with them. What does a father want more than to be with his family and receive his son?'' Izquierdo told The Associated Press. The AP has agreed not to use the girl's name.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman Ana Santiago declined to comment on the case.

``Privacy consideration preclude us from confirming or denying if a person has filed an application with USCIS as well as commenting on a person's immigration status,'' she said in a statement.

Some days it is difficult for Izquierdo, a pig and potato farmer, to understand how he got to this place.

``In my village, I was never in the paper. People knew me, but I wasn't famous,'' he said.

It is a complicated story, one that has drawn comparisons to the 2000 fight over Elian González. During a separation from Alvarez, Izquierdo had a brief affair and his lover got pregnant. After their daughter's birth, the woman took the girl to the U.S. with Izquierdo's permission. He stayed in Cuba with his wife.

But the woman was deeply troubled and soon lost custody of her daughter, who ended up with wealthy Cuban-American foster parents. They doted on her and wanted to keep her. The state government backed them—Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist were regularly updated. Its attorneys argued, among other things, that Izquierdo was unfit.

To complicate matters, the foster parents adopted the girl's older brother by a different father. If she went back to Cuba with Izquierdo, the siblings might be separated for years because of travel restrictions imposed by both governments. Eventually, Izquierdo cut a deal. He got custody of his daughter, but he can't take her out of the U.S. until May 2010, and her former foster parents get her for two weekends a month.

``With all those psychologists, and therapists, it was confusing. She was suffering. In the long run, they were going to damage her. I had to dance to their dance,'' Izquierdo said of the agreement.

On a recent afternoon, Izquierdo's daughter boasted about his fishing prowess, and they argued over who would tell the story of his latest catch.

His daughter now calls Alvarez ``Mamí,'' and becoming ``Mr. Mamí'' was no easy task for Izquierdo, especially after months of scrutiny from psychologists and lawyers over everything from breakfast choices to bath time.

``She asks so many questions. She is so smart. Sometime she astounds me,'' Izquierdo said.

In recent months, he's learned to do ponytails and that Hannah Montana is cool, but his landlady said the girl recently asked her if she was going to be her new mom.

Izquierdo says it was his older daughter Rachel who most helped the girl adjust to her new life with his family. And in a conversation, her name surfaces constantly.

``Papí, remember how Rachel taught me to dance?'' the girl asked at the playground, adding wistfully, ``If Rachel were here, she would show me. I would be able to get all the way across the monkey bars by myself.''

During the weekends his daughter goes to her former foster parents Joe and Maria Cubas, he passes time with a few friends and watches a lot of TV. He has gained a slick Miami style and a small paunch.

Joe Cubas, a former agent for major league baseball players, said the transitions are hard on the girl.

``When we have her, and we have to return her, it's devastating. She does everything she can, cries and kicks and pleads not to be returned,'' he said. ``It's heartbreaking because there's nothing we can do.''

Cubas said he is concerned that the girl's therapy recently ended, given the separation from her stepmother and sister and the continued the transition between the two families. Izquierdo said he believes in therapy, but he never trusted his daughter's therapist, who testified against him in the custody case.

He ended those sessions but has kept in touch with another therapist in the case and acknowledged his daughter is often sad when she returns from the Cubases.

``It goes away after a while, but it is hard,'' he said.

Izquierdo has yet to find work. After so much separation, he said he wants to find something that would allow him to be home with his daughter after school. Yet the economy is tough, he lacks a car and some potential employers and friends have told him they're afraid to help because they fear a backlash from the community. At the local coffee shop, people still stop and stare.

The Cuban government hasn't provided financial support, he said, but since his public benefits ran out, a few people in the community have stepped up.

``I hate Fidel Castro,'' was the first thing his landlady Raiza Aguilar said when asked about Izquierdo. ``But Rafael is not a bad person....the first year in the U.S. is very difficult, especially with his wife and his daughter over there.''

Yet even Aguilar questioned why he still wants to go home.

``I'm a farmer. I lived close to the earth,'' Izquierdo explained. ``The experience here, it didn't allow me to feel very positive.''

 

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