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Wednesday, 12 April, 2000, 13:15 GMT 14:15 UK
Elian's home town

In Cardenas, Elian has become a national celebrity
By BBC News Online's Kate Goldberg

In Cuba's rundown ex-sugar port of Cardenas, Elian Gonzalez has become a national celebrity.

Cardenas is Elian's hometown - the place to which he is expected to return, and from which his mother fled last November.

Cuban exiles say that it was the repressive atmosphere in Cuba that drove his mother to risk her life and his in an effort to reach Miami.

They warn of President Fidel Castro's poor human rights record, arguing that it would be in the boy's best interests to remain in the United States.

If Elian is sent back to Cuba, they say, he will be subjected to aggressive Communist indoctrination, and held up as political trophy.

A national icon

Back in Cuba, Elian has been dubbed "the boy hero" by Fidel Castro's regime, which has orchestrated mass demonstrations to demand the boy's return.

Placard reads "Return Elian to his school desk"
His face has been plastered on t-shirts and posters across the island. The local museum in Cardenas has opened an Elian exhibition room.

But the government has said Elian's homecoming will be private, and shielded from media scrutiny.

And the people of Cardenas say they are determined to ensure the child has as ordinary a life as possible.

Drugs, crime and money

Elian's father - a member of Cuba's Communist Party - lives in a wealthier than average neigbourhood in Cardenas, and says the boy has never wanted for anything.

He has his own bedroom, and his father, who works in the tourism industry, is paid in dollars.

In Cardenas there are no drugs in the schools and guns are not accessible

Author Mark Cramer
US author Mark Cramer, who has visited Cardenas and written two books on Cuba, says that in many ways the town is an ideal place to bring up a child.

"Contrary to Miami, in Cardenas there are no drugs in the schools and guns are not accessible to citizens," he told BBC News Online.

With horse-drawn carts and bicycles being the main kinds of transport, the air is clean and the streets are safe, he said.

"I stayed with a family whose little daughter was ill, and witnessed how readily available was her free medical care," he added.

Across the Straits

Yet many people in Cardenas look to Miami for both fashion and finance.

Cardenas - which faces Miami 90 miles away across the Florida Straits - has been hard hit economically, and most people's money comes either from tourism or from relatives in the US.

On the streets of Cardenas, Cuba's youth favour The Back Street Boys over Salsa, and the latest Miami streetwear over Communist ideals.

So great is the allure of the US that each year hundreds of people risk their lives trying to get there.

But unlike the Cuban exiles of the 1950s and 1960s, it tends to be economics rather than ideology that spurs them to go.

Mark Cramer's new book is called Living & Working Abroad: Havana (British co-publisher: Kuperard)
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See also:

09 Apr 00 | Americas
Miami divided over Elian
04 Apr 00 | Americas
High emotion in Havana and Miami
03 Feb 00 | Americas
Elian: View from Cuba
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