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Last Updated: Friday, 22 April, 2005, 06:35 GMT 07:35 UK
What happened to Elian Gonzalez?
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC correspondent in Cardenas, Cuba

Elian and Juan Miguel Gonzales
Elian now lives with his father Juan Miguel in Cuba
"He's just a normal little boy" - is what almost everyone in this small, dusty Cuban town will tell you when you ask them about Elian Gonzalez.

A normal little boy who is doing well at school, has plenty of friends, and thinks that maybe he will be a gymnast when he grows up.

It is a far cry from the high drama of five years ago, when Elian was the world famous symbol of a bitter dispute between two nations, two political systems, and one family.

Court battle

Discovered floating alone in the Florida Straits, tied to an inner tube, he was one of just three survivors of a group of 14 Cubans who had set off from Cardenas, 129km (80 miles) east of Havana, in late November 1999.

They were hoping to reach the US in a handmade boat. The voyage turned into disaster when, 56km (35 miles) from the US coast, the fragile craft ran into a storm.

Elian Gonzales rally in Cuba
Ensuring Elian's return became a rallying point for Cubans

Elian's mother, who could not swim, is believed to have been one of the last to drown.

Elian's relatives in Florida claimed that she had died trying to get her son to freedom. They said it would only deepen the tragedy if the boy were sent back to Communist Cuba.

The US courts got involved, and eventually ruled in favour of Elian's Cuban father.

Elian returned to Cardenas.

Museum exhibit

Five years later, the now 11-year-old lives with his father in one of the more comfortable houses on the seaside town's main street. There is a swing in the front porch, and evidence of several pets.

The Cuban government carefully guards his privacy. State security agents appear to have set up camp in the house next door. Anyone loitering nearby is questioned. Photographs are prohibited.

US federal officer pointing gun at Elian and man holding him

Tourists who want to find out more about Elian are directed to the town's small museum where one room is dedicated to his story.

The walls are dominated by large images of the massive government-organised rallies five years ago, in which hundreds of thousands of Cubans, most wearing "Save Elian" T-shirts, demanded that he be brought back home.

A few blocks down the road, sitting in her tiny home on an old rocking chair, Haydee Gonzalez, Elian's great aunt, says Elian appears unaffected by the ordeal.

"He's so like his mother," she says. "Very calm. Very quiet. He was always like that."

Family divided

Her great-nephew is not entirely kept out of the public eye. Occasionally he can be spotted sitting at the front row at Cuban government events.

He often seems a little bored, but quite at ease in the presence of President Fidel Castro, who appears to dote on him.

Elian's father, Juan Miguel, has become a minor public figure, having been elected to Cuba's National Assembly, in 2003.

But he still works as a waiter at the Varadero tourist resort 20 minutes outside Cardenas.

"Everything is going fine," he told me when I approached him.

He declined a longer interview, but did say that following the dispute over Elian, all contact had been broken with his family in Miami.

"They are sticking to their position, so that's that," he said, before guiding some tourists to a lakeside table.

The family divide across the Florida Straits appears more keenly felt by the older generation in Cardenas.

Haydee Gonzalez, the great-aunt, has three sisters and two brothers in Miami.

The 71-year-old has not spoken to any of them for at least six years.

She says she particularly misses her elder sister, Caridad, whom she last saw in 1998.

"I would so love to talk to her," she says, "but now I have no idea how to get in contact."

Castro opens Elian museum
15 Jul 01 |  Americas
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04 Oct 01 |  Americas
Cuban anger at court ruling
02 Jun 00 |  Americas
What's life really like in Cuba?
27 Apr 00 |  Americas
Country profile: Cuba
04 Jun 03 |  Country profiles

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