Why Sean Goldman is on a jet to the US

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Almost five years after Bruna Bianchi took her American-born son Sean Goldman on vacation from New Jersey to her native Brazil and never returned, Sean is finally back with his father.

At about 10 a.m. today, they left the American consulate on President Wilson Avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro, and sped away in police-escorted SUVs to the airport. There the Goldmans boarded a private jet to the United States.

Goldman had said more times than anyone could count that he would not be happy until his son was with him and the wheels of the plane were off the ground on the way back home. He must be very happy.

US consulate spokeswoman Orna Blum talks to the media in Rio de Janeiro.
U.S. consulate spokeswoman Orna Blum had been urging that Sean Goldman be transferred in privacy.
(Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

How his son is feeling, however, is another matter. According to the lawyer representing Sean Goldman’s Brazilian family, Sergio Tostes, the chaotic scene earlier at the American Consulate Thursday morning was a spectacle put on purposely by the Brazilian family. They wanted a mob of press as Sean arrived for the handover, Tostes said, to protest David Goldman's unwillingness to agree to their request to have Sean's grandmother and attorney fly with him to the United States, and his unwillingness to agree to visitation.

The boy, now 9, wearing a bright yellow jersey adorned with a Brazilian flag, appeared down the block and across the street from the consulate, walking huddled between Tostes and his stepfather, Joao Paulo Lins e Silva. Slightly ahead were his grandmother and maternal uncle. There was no sign of Chiara, his 15-month-old half-sister.

The background to the scene is now familiar: In 2004, Bianchi — David Goldman’s ex-wife — took Sean on vacation to her native Brazil, remarried into a wealthy, powerful family of lawyers and eventually died shortly after giving birth to Sean’s half-sister last year.

The family was mobbed by an elbowing crowd of cameramen and photographers as it accompanied Sean to the consulate. "Open up space, please!" shouted Tostes.

"You were the ones that caused this!" shouted one photographer.

Completely true. US Embassy spokeswoman Orna Blum had been urging since Wednesday night that Sean be transferred in privacy.

Alerted that the family was planning to arrive on foot, she gave a pre-emptive press conference outside the consulate to mostly Brazilian journalists.

"I want to confirm that the family has complete access to the building," she said, speaking in Portuguese to the mostly Brazilian reporters. "Here in the consulate we are facilitating access, discretion and calm for the family." It was vital, she said, for Sean to have privacy during these moments.

But, Tostes said, in an exclusive interview conducted by GlobalPost for CBS News Wednesday night, the scene at the handover was retribution for Goldman’s intransigence on the visitation issues.

"It would have been convenient for Sean's grandmother to travel to the United States," Tostes said Wednesday night in his home. "It would make the transition as smooth as possible, not just for the boy but for the benefit of David Goldman."

Before the impasse, which occurred in a meeting between lawyers from both sides, Tostes said the families had agreed to have Sean's maternal grandmother meet David Goldman, to tell him about Sean's likes and dislikes, habits, and some medical issues. He is, for example, allergic to shellfish. That did not happen, although it is unclear whether the families discussed these issues inside the consulate.

The media circus was a plan, Tostes said, to combat what he said would be a hero's welcome for Sean when he arrived in the United States. He wished to have a farewell in front of everyone seen on the front page of papers in the U.S. and all over the world.

It might make the front pages, but perhaps not with the intended result. After the hubbub died down, many Americans and Brazilians who witnessed the scene live and on television were outraged at the family for creating an unnecessary spectacle.

This was only the latest in the twists and turns in the case since Bianchi died from complications during the birth of her second child last year and Rio de Janeiro state courts granted Sean's stepfather custody of him. The case went through multiple levels of state family courts and then shifted to federal courts, until the chief justice of the Federal Supreme Court cleared the way on Tuesday for David Goldman to take Sean home to Tinton Falls, N.J.

By the end, the case had become in many ways a reflection of the ups and downs of U.S.-Brazilian relations and the challenges Brazil faces as it strives to become a legitimate world power and mature democracy.

First, there was the vast difference in how the story was covered. American media — from the "Today Show" to the tiny Asbury Park Press in New Jersey — adopted one storyline: “Kidnapped American Kid Held In Brazil,” portraying Goldman as a valiant superdad and the Brazilian family as evil kidnappers.

The Brazilian press was more mixed, generally sympathetic to the Brazilian family, focusing on their togetherness, the tragedy they had suffered when Bruna died, and Sean’s privileged and (reportedly) happy life in Brazil.

Then there were the geopolitical implications. American politicians’ intervention on Goldman’s behalf struck many Brazilians as old bully Uncle Sam messing in hemispheric affairs again. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was momentarily villainized, and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) made it a defining issue of his office, traveling with Goldman to Brazil several times. And then there was Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who held up a trade bill benefitting Brazil until the final court decision on Tuesday.

Sean Goldman’s maternal family and its lawyer, Tostes, continuously lashed out on this issue. Back in April, he lambasted Smith in an interview with GlobalPost. “The involvement of Chris Smith in this matter is totally inappropriate and a big disaster for the good relations between Brazil and the United States,” he said.

As recently as Wednesday, Sean’s maternal grandmother joined the fray, telling G1 that her grandson was “the object of a political and economic accord,” apparently a reference to the Lautenberg trade bill.

To Americans, the case played on their negative perceptions of Brazilian society, which include impressions of social inequality and corruption. The Brazilian family was portrayed as connected and powerful, and thus able to manipulate a legal system where the rich are often able to get away with murder.

David Goldman and his American legal team at times seemed to struggle in a world that worked so differently from the U.S. justice system. Though his Brazilian head lawyer, a young Sao Paulo lawyer named Ricardo Zamariola, eventually became one of the tale’s heroes and even won praise from Tostes, the Brazilian family’s high-powered team seemed to outmaneuver David Goldman even after federal courts had rendered clear verdicts in his favor.

Brazil’s ever-growing role as an international mediator was also threatened by the case. In the last year, Brazil has tried its hand in diplomacy everywhere from the Gaza Strip to Iran to Copenhagen, with mixed success. The visit of Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Brazil in November was widely seen as a particularly grave faux pas, while Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s leadership at the failed climate conference in Copenhagen was widely praised.

But the Goldman case led to reports that Brazil was a regular violator of the Hague Convention, a treaty regulating international custody battles, and thus perhaps not as admirable a global player as it wished to be. Even after multiple, strongly-worded decisions by Brazilian judges that Brazil was in violation and that Sean Goldman should be returned to the U.S. and his custody settled there, the boy was still in Brazil. Chief Justice Gilmar Mendes’ final ruling recognized that damage, noting that the issue could bring “grave sanctions to Brazil.”

As the dispute drew to a close this week, it seemed to be headed toward an uneasy consensus that Sean should return to the United States. (Sean’s family here, of course, was a notable exception.) Three levels of federal courts had agreed. Brazilian public opinion seemed to be shifting in favor of the American father, or at least in favor of his argument. And Smith said yesterday that he noticed that members of the Brazilian press had been more sympathetic to David Goldman in the past week.

Even Tostes, the Brazilians’ tenacious attorney, finally relented. “I understood it was the end of the line,” he said. “Out of respect for my country’s judiciary, I said no more appeals. My priority from that moment on was to have the smoothest transition possible.”

But as is so common in Brazil, not all went according to plan.