Soviet-born immigrant who defected at 12 identifies with Elian

MIAMI (AP) - The man once known as the ''littlest defector'' for choosing this country when he was just 12 came to Miami on Sunday to lend his support and sympathy to 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez.

Walter Polovchak, who defied his parents two decades ago and chose to stay in the United States while they returned to the Ukraine, said that while Elian may not understand the legal battle over his custody, the boy's perspective on American life is probably clear enough for him to have an opinion about his fate.

''I feel he's a little more mature and understands,'' Polovchak said. ''Even a 6-year-old will realize you don't have to stand in line for food, that even dogs have aisles for food in the supermarket in America.''

Polovchak met Elian and his Miami relatives Sunday to offer support and sympathy for their plight.

''I just said they should stay strong and believe in their cause,'' Polovchak said after a 45-minute meeting with the family. ''I believe eventually they will prevail. It's overwhelming to them.''

As a 12-year-old defector, Polovchak listed Jell-O and bananas as top reasons for wanting to stay in the United States. But what he really was expressing was a love of freedom, he says. He marveled at walking in a grocery store and plucking things from the aisles; he was used to long lines and small rations.

Polovchak's refusal to return to the Ukraine with his parents set off a 5-year custody battle that didn't end until he turned 18 and was granted U.S. citizenship. He's now an office manager in Chicago, is married and has a 6-year-old son of his own.

Polovchak said he understood what Elian was going through during the custody tug-of-war between his Miami relatives and his father in Cuba.

He said the best solution for Elian might be for his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, to come with his wife and young son to live with him in the United States, rather than fighting to take him back to Cuba.

Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, visibly frustrated over the attention focused on the boy, said Elian was in good spirits when he and family members went to church Sunday morning. But when the family returned later from an afternoon county fair, Elian seemed tired.

''He's a little bit stressed out,'' said Elian's cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez.

''Every time he goes out, he has 30 of you staring at him,'' she told reporters.

Polovchak said the scene outside Lazaro Gonzalez's home reminded him of the media attention he received during his own custody battle.

''I was looked at as a traitor to my country,'' he said, recalling that time. ''My father was under a lot of pressure to return. Elian's father is under tremendous pressure, too.''

Polovchak has visited his parents twice since becoming a U.S. citizen, and says the family wounds have healed somewhat.

He said he has been following Elian's case since the boy was found clinging to an inner tube off Florida's coast on Thanksgiving Day. The boy's mother and 10 others died when their boat sank two days earlier during an attempt to reach the United States.

Polovchak said his trip to Miami was financed by an unidentified California doctor not affiliated with any Cuban exile group.


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