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Experts: Fla. couple may not be welcome in Cuba

Tuesday - 4/9/2013, 5:52pm  ET

This undated photo provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office shows a 25-foot sailboat that was recently acquired by Joshua Michael Hakken. Officials are searching for Hakken, who kidnapped his two children from their grandparents' home in Tampa, Fla. Hakken lost custody of the children last year after a drug possession arrest in Louisiana. (AP Photo/Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office)

CHRISTINE ARMARIO
Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) -- The Florida couple accused of snatching away their two sons and fleeing to Cuba may have thought they could find a refuge from U.S. authorities on the communist island. But with criminal charges pending and little for Cuba to gain politically by holding them, experts say they are unlikely to stay for long.

In a case drawing parallels with the Elian Gonzalez saga more than a decade ago, authorities say Joshua Michael Hakken kidnapped his sons, 4-year-old Cole and 2-year-old Chase, from his mother-in-law's house north of Tampa and took the children and his wife, Sharyn, on a boat to Cuba.

The boys' maternal grandparents had been granted permanent custody of the boys last week.

The U.S. and Cuba share no extradition agreement and the island nation is also not a signatory of the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, an international treaty for governmental cooperation on such cases.

That means it will be up to Cuban authorities on whether or not to return to them.

"If Cuba's view is the father has the right to the children, it's up to them to make that decision," said Cyra Akila Choudhury, a Florida International University law professor and expert in family custody cases.

Cuba is long known for harboring U.S. criminals with an ideological bent. But in a case with no political overtones and pending kidnapping charges, Cuban authorities there may be hesitant to keep them.

Hakken lost custody of his sons last year after a drug possession arrest in Louisiana and later tried to take the children from a foster home at gunpoint, authorities said. A warrant has been issued for his arrest on two counts of kidnapping; interference with child custody; child neglect; false imprisonment and other charges.

"There is no upside for Cuba," said Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami.

The incident recalls the child custody case that set the two Cold War foes feuding in 1999. That year, 5-year-old Elian Gonzalez was found clinging to an inner tube off Florida after his mothers and others drowned while fleeing Cuba toward American soil. The boy was taken to Miami to live with relatives, but his father in Cuba demanded the boy be sent back.

U.S. courts ultimately ruled Gonzalez should be sent back, though his Miami relatives refused to return him. In April 2000, federal agents raided the family's home and he was returned to Cuba soon after.

Cuban authorities had no immediate comment on the current case.

The two nations are divided by the 51-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba and have limited diplomatic relations.

According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Hakken entered his mother-in-law's Florida house last Wednesday, tied her up and fled with his sons. Federal, state and local authorities searched by air and sea for a boat Hakken had recently bought. The truck Hakken, his wife and the boys had been traveling in was found Thursday, abandoned in Madeira Beach, Fla.

In Cuba, an Associated Press reporter approached the family at the dock where their boat was tied up, and a man who resembled photographs of Joshua Michael Hakken yelled out "Stop! Stay back!" He had a full beard and wore shorts and a baseball cap.

The family appeared to interact normally. The youngest child was seated in a stroller and the elder boy on a curb. A woman who resembled mother Sharyn Hakken was seen on the boat.

Heavy Cuban state security was present and told reporters not to take pictures of the family or the boat, which bore the name Salty and a paw print on its side. The four later ducked into the office of dock master Gabriel Abrego, who declined comment.

Andrew Zych, a Canadian docked in a sailboat steps away from the Hakkens, said the family had arrived recently and seemed normal.

"I liked the way they played with the kids," he said, adding he was surprised to learn of events in the U.S.

An Amber Alert had been issued for the boys in Florida, Louisiana and other states. Authorities have previously characterized Hakken as "anti-government.'

State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. Interests Section in Havana is seeking more information from local authorities about the case but wouldn't comment further because of privacy reasons.

"U.S. officials are providing all appropriate assistance to the family," Ventrell said.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case publicly, told The AP: "We have received very good cooperation from the Cuban authorities in this ongoing investigation."

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