Florida man flies home from Cuba without son, ready for legal battle

HAVANA - A Florida man returned home without his 5-year-old son Thursday, forced to leave him behind with his mother despite a happy reunion in Cuba - and anticipating a long court fight for custody.

Jon Colombini told The Associated Press his son, Jonathon, was ''grinning ear to ear'' to see him during a visit this week, but that the father believes the youngster would be better off in America.

''My point is that I want him in the United States,'' he said. ''Had he never known it, that'd be one thing. But he knows what it's like to live that life. I want him to know his brother, his uncle and all his family.''

Colombini's ex-wife, Arletis Blanco, fled southern Florida on Nov. 12 on a 21-foot fishing boat bound for Cuba accompanied by her son, boyfriend Agustin Lemus, and their infant daughter.

After three days of visits with Blanco and Jonathon, Colombini said Thursday the couple had not been able to resolve their differences. The case now appears headed for a lengthy custody battle.

''It's hard to say whether I believe it can be resolved or not without that fight,'' he said. ''I want to believe so.''

Colombini said his ex-wife refused to let him see the child away from the house and ruled out overnight visitations. So Colombini timed his visits for after school, traveling 90 minutes every day from downtown Havana to a one-story bungalow in the Cuban countryside where Jonathon now lives.

He said he found his son in good spirits and that Jonathon smiled sheepishly when he occasionally mixed Spanish and English. Jonathon, he said, never asked why they hadn't seen each other in more than a month.

''I'm sure there are a lot of things going through his head,'' Colombini said. ''But I didn't bring it up and he didn't mention it.''

While Colombini admitted relief that Jonathon seemed happy riding horses in the country and playing with his newfound Cuban classmates, he said he believes an American life is best for the child.

Colombini, a 31-year-old restaurant kitchen manager who lives in Homestead, Fla., with his second wife, has said he and his ex-wife share custody of Jonathon. That status would prohibit the boy's mother from taking him out of Florida.

Telephone calls seeking comment from Blanco's lawyer in Cuba were not immediately returned.

Colombini said he pressed his case before high-ranking Cuban officials during meetings in Havana.

His lawyer, Michael Berry, said he has emphasized to Cuba's authorities that a U.S. court order has granted Colombini temporary custody of the child. Berry said the officials were ''attentive and cooperative.''

Since returning to Cuba, Blanco, 29, has been living in the western province of Pinar del Rio, where she has said she hopes she and Jonathon can begin life anew.

She fled the United States while under investigation by Florida authorities on embezzlement charges.

''I think she got caught up in some things she couldn't control,'' Colombini said, refusing to elaborate further.

Berry called Blanco's actions ''poor judgment'' and said it is evidence that the boy should be raised by his father.

The case is complicated by the fact that Cuba and the United States have no diplomatic relations and do not share an extradition treaty covering such cases.

''There is no roadmap,'' Berry said. ''This case calls for spontaneous activity as things evolve.''

The case, dubbed ''Reverse Elian'' by Florida media, has brought inevitable comparisons to the saga of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old boy who was taken from Cuba to Florida without his father's permission and later returned to his homeland after a protracted custody battle.

There are notable similarities: Both Elian and Jonathon were 5 when they crossed the treacherous Florida Straits in boats. And both cases centered on 31-year-old fathers who desperately wanted their sons back.

Unlike Elian's case, Fidel Castro has avoided politicizing the case of Jonathon, and there was no mention of Colombini's visit in the state-controlled media.

As he watched the Elian Gonzalez saga unfold, Colombini said he never envisioned he might find himself in such a situation. He said he believed Elian could have had a far different life in America but he supported the boy's return to Cuba.

''He obviously belonged with his father,'' Colombini said. ''His father loves him very much.''


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