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Monday, 13 December, 1999, 12:10 GMT
Shipwrecked Cuban boy stirs mixed emotions

Cuba protests The case of Elian Gonzalez has sparked angry demonstrations


By Tom Gibb in Havana

In the rundown ports along Cuba's north coast you can easily spot the teenagers with family in Miami by looking at their shoes.

Over the last four decades waves of Cubans have fled the 145km (90 miles) to Florida on rickety rafts. They now send back toys and the latest fashions to their families, so some kids play with computer games, while teenagers dance to US music and wear Nike trainers.

Unless of course they have no relatives over the water - in which case their shoes are usually falling to pieces.

Six-year-old Elian Gonzalez was from a typical family. Five of his grandfather's siblings left Cuba soon after Fidel Castro's revolution and started families in Miami.


Elian Gonzalez Elian Gonzalez

For decades the two branches had almost no contact. But in the last 10 years, as Cuba has slowly opened up, Miami relatives have started to visit.

They have got on excellently. That is usually the case. Politically Cuba and Florida might be at each other's throats, but I am always amazed how long-divided families put all that aside. Blood, it seems, is thicker than political slogans.

Elian's parents were separated but they still got on well until last month when Elian's mother and stepfather left with him and 11 others on a boat for the United States.

Speed boats

Cuban officials believe they paid for the trip, but no one knows who put up the money. Since the US and Cuba agreed in 1994 to send anyone caught at sea back to the island, it has become hard to reach Florida on a raft. So instead increasing numbers of Cubans go on speed boats which come across from Florida charging up to $8,000-a-head.

Their journey, however, ended in disaster. The boat capsized. Elian saw his mother drown. He then somehow clung onto an inner tube for two days until he was rescued by Florida fishermen.

After recovering in hospital, Elian was handed over to his uncles, aunts and cousins in Miami by the US Immigration Service.

His father and grandparents, back on the island were overjoyed by the news that he was alive - until they realized that their family in Miami did not want to send him back.

Politcal campaign

Almost immediately exile leaders, who are always quick to find an excuse to get one over Fidel Castro, started a highly political campaign for him to stay. Elian has no future in Cuba they argued, turning him into a symbol of Cubans fleeing communist oppression.

TV pictures of Elian wearing a T-shirt of the Cuban National Foundation, which is Fidel Castro's arch enemy, surrounded by toys, infuriated the Cuban leader. But he also saw, in such crude political manipulation, a useful stick with which to beat Uncle Sam.

In the last week he has launched the kind of saturating propaganda campaign only possible in a one party state. On Friday the entire country was shut down with anti-US rallies in which hundreds of thousands of people participated - filing past the US Interest Section in Havana.

Threats to Washington

President Castro immediately started to threaten Washington, saying that migration accords between the two countries, which benefit the United States more than Cuba, were now in peril.

Here President Castro has a point. US immigration policy towards Cubans, who can stay if they reach dry land but are sent back if they are picked up at sea, is filled with contradictions.

But the real audience is internal. State TV blares out a continuous stream of vitriol about child prostitution, abuse, drugs, and poverty in the United States.

Schoolchildren all over the country shout how Elian is captive in a place with no schools or health care, away from his parents and surrounded by horrible toys. Down with Mickey Mouse, long live Epidemio Valdez, shouted one child referring to a Cuban cartoon.



The sight of the two societies dragging up all the vitriol of four decades of hostility in a brawl over a small, bewildered boy is not a pleasant one
Tom Gibb

Among the Cubans I know, however, there is little enthusiasm. More than 500,000 adults, a large chunk of the population, applied to emigrate to the United States last year. Most people think Elian should be sent back. But they also think both sides are playing politics.

Some younger people even say Elian should stay in Florida. One group told me that when he is their age he will hate his father for bringing him back. They all want to emigrate. Neighbours have also complained to me about their small children being used so blatantly.

It is hard not to agree. The sight of the two societies dragging up all the vitriol of four decades of hostility in a brawl over a small, bewildered boy is not a pleasant one - especially when the issue is which country treats its children better.

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See also:
11 Dec 99 |  Americas
Asylum bid for shipwreck boy
09 Dec 99 |  Americas
US seeks Elian paternity proof
09 Dec 99 |  Americas
Diplomacy effort over shipwreck boy
08 Dec 99 |  Americas
Cuba-US row deepens
06 Dec 99 |  Americas
Cuba warned over diplomats' safety

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