MIAMI (AFP) — A Cuban pig farmer cleared a major hurdle in an international custody battle Thursday, when a Florida court ruled he did not abandon his five-year-old daughter, who lives in Miami with wealthy anti-communist exiles.
Judge Jerry Cohen ruled in favor of Rafael Izquierdo, dismissing claims he was an unfit parent for having allowed the girl to leave communist Cuba with her mentally unstable mother.
"This court cannot deny Izquierdo custody of his child," she said, reading a 47-page decision to a packed Miami courtroom. But the judge stressed the girl will not be returned to her father until after a follow-up hearing to determine whether she might suffer emotional harm.
Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) said that separating the girl and her 13-year-old half-brother, who was adopted by the foster parents, would have "psychological and emotional repercussions."
But Izquierdo insisted that the girl must be turned over to him.
"I want them to give me back what is mine ... I want my daughter," said Izquierdo, a farmer from Cabaiguan in central Cuba.
His lawyer, Ira Kurzban also called for the girl to be reunited with her father immediately. "They are basically holding her hostage," he said.
The legal battle has drawn wide public interest in Miami because it pits a farmer from communist Cuba against a couple of prominent and wealthy members of south Florida's Cuban-American community that staunchly opposes the island's regime.
"It was clear from the beginning the DCF had no case. This was just politically motivated," said Kurzban.
The young girl's saga started when her mother, Elena Perez, took her and her half-brother to Miami in 2005, leaving Cuba behind in the hopes of starting a new life in the United States. But Perez soon became depressed and suicidal, and authorities removed the two children from her custody.
The girl and her half-brother ended in the care of Joe Cubas. The son of Cuban refugees, Cubas is a wealthy businessman and a former sports agent known for having helped smuggle baseball players out of Cuba.
While politics have crept into the proceedings, the case is a far cry from the bitterly controversial custody battle for Elian Gonzalez, a five-year-old boy rescued at sea in 1999 after his mother died as the two fled Cuba.
Gonzalez was placed in the custody of relatives in Miami, and was soon at the the center of a political firestorm involving Havana, Washington and anti-Castro exiles.
US authorities eventually ordered the boy returned to Cuba, and stirred further outrage among the Cuban-American community by sending armed agents to retrieve him from his uncle's house in Miami.
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