RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The 9-year-old boy at the center of an international custody battle was reunited in Brazil with his American father on Thursday and boarded a plane to the United States, ending a five-year acrimonious dispute that tested bilateral ties.
The legal battle over Sean Goldman led to testy exchanges between top government officials of the two countries and briefly threatened to interrupt billions of dollars of U.S. trade benefits to Brazil.
The father, David Goldman, and his son were reunited at the U.S. consulate in Rio de Janeiro.
“There were lots of smiles, hugs. They talked about basketball and the snowfall in New Jersey just recently, how much fun it is to play in the snow,” said Chris Smith, a U.S. congressman from New Jersey who flew to Brazil to help Goldman.
“That was a wonderful experience. There was nothing to suggest distance,” Smith told a teleconference.
The boy was treated to a hamburger and a Coke, he said.
David Goldman had fought since 2004 to bring his son home to New Jersey after his then-wife and Sean’s mother, Bruna Bianchi, brought the boy to her native Brazil and then divorced Goldman.
Bianchi died last year while giving birth to a daughter but her second husband and her family sought to keep custody of Sean.
The handover was dramatic. The startled-looking boy, donning a T-shirt with Brazil’s green and yellow colors, clutched his stepfather as the two pushed their way through a chaotic mass of reporters to enter outside the consulate where his father was waiting.
At times, Sean covered his face from cameras. His teary-eyed Brazilian grandmother, who has campaigned publicly for the right to raise the boy herself and appealed to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to intervene, entered separately without commenting.
David Goldman, who has seen Sean only in brief visits to Brazil since 2004, cried out “They’re hurting my son!” upon seeing the scrum, Smith said.
The Goldmans flew from Rio’s international airport aboard a private jet that was paid for by NBC News, Smith said. He declined to say where they were going because the family requested privacy.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a New Jersey senator had protested the long legal battle by delaying a trade measure to extend billions of dollars of duty-free benefits on some Brazilian exports.
In Washington, Clinton issued a statement saying she was thrilled that the boy was reunited with his father and thanked everyone who brought the issue to a “successful conclusion.”
The U.S. government regarded the case as an abduction.
On Tuesday, the chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court put an end to long-running judicial ping-pong that left the case bouncing from one court to another, ruling that Sean must be returned to Goldman.
Bianchi’s family and her second husband fought to keep Sean in Brazil, saying he was settled in the country and did not want to go back to the United States.
Additional reporting by Douglas Engle, Leandra Camera and Daniel Trotta; editing by Todd Benson and Sandra Maler