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Saturday, 29 January, 2000, 12:13 GMT
The Dalai Lama of Little Havana
Elian Gonzalez
Elian is at the centre of a highly-politicised row
By the BBC's Malcolm Brabant in Miami

America has had some bizarre religious icons in recent years.

There was the office building in Clearwater that was a shrine for thousands of pilgrims after rain-water smeared its reflective windows and created an image of the Virgin Mary.

Then there was the nun bun of Tennessee, a cinnamon roll that reportedly became endowed with miraculous qualities when it emerged from the oven as the spitting image of Mother Teresa.

People lift their sick children over the wire fence, in the belief that Elian can cure them

But there has been no icon to compare with "the Dalai Lama of Little Havana".

That description of Elian Gonzalez came from a respected psychologist, who along with many observers, is concerned about the six-year-old Cuban boy's mental welfare.

Healing powers?

Like the Dalai Lama, Elian has become a rallying point for exiles hoping the tyrannical regime in their homeland will soon be ejected. And some believe he has divine healing powers.

The six-year-old Cuban was rescued on Thanksgiving Day
The six-year-old Cuban was rescued on Thanksgiving Day
Crowds gather outside the modest single storey home in Miami's Little Havana district belonging to the great uncle and cousin who have been caring for Elian since his rescue from the ocean off Florida last November.

People lift their sick children over the wire fence, in the belief that Elian can cure them.

Last Sunday afternoon, Elian was forced to stop playing or watching the television inside the house by the clamour outside. The family felt obliged to make a brief appearance.

Old men and women surged forward shouting "touch me Elian!" The little boy looked completely bewildered but for a minute or so he performed his duty, as behoves a little prince. Then be bolted for the sanctuary behind the white door.

The next day a larger crowd gathered outside the house, crushed against metal barriers erected by police.

They were hoping to glimpse Elian's two grandmothers who were on a mission to bring the boy back to Cardenas in Cuba, but who on this occasion, failed to show, scared off by the crowd in the lion's den that is Little Havana.

Fidel Castro has called for Elian to be returned to Cuba
Fidel Castro has called for Elian to be returned to Cuba
A young man appeared with five boxes of carnations that he began distributing to the exiles, with the help of a policeman and one of Elian's neighbours, a character in his sixties, dressed in garish lime-green shorts, white socks, and chomping on a huge cigar.

The man said: "These women have portrayed us as a mafia, but we will throw down a path of flowers for them."

The crowd roared their approval, and began chanting "Viva Donato" towards a neatly coiffeured dark-haired man with a thick gold chain and a crucifix across his chest. This was Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who plucked the little boy from the water on Thanksgiving Day - and thus created a phenomenon.

"Elian is a miracle child," he said.

Clutching a carnation and bathing in the adoration of the exiles, Mr Dalrymple described how Elian was virtually unblemished as he lifted him out of the inner tube.

He apparently had not suffered the normal agonies of being adrift at sea for days such as sunburn and exposure, whereas the other two survivors were cut to pieces by blisters and jellyfish bites.

His emergence from the water like Moses, on one of America's most important festivals, helps explain his new mystical status.

But the reason why he has united the exiles was eloquently described by Spencer Eig, one of the team of lawyers working on behalf of the Miami relatives.

"So many of them have made that same voyage from Cuba," he said. "They have been floating, with their mothers, at the mercy of the waves, not knowing if they would make it to Florida, not knowing if they would survive."

Political battles

Elian's arrival in Miami has been manna from heaven for Jorge Mas Santos, who inherited the leadership of the hardline anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation upon the death, three years ago, of his father Jorge Mas Canosa.

Mas Canosa was a multi-millionaire businessman, and a hugely influential figure, who thanks to his political fundraising abilities, ensured Cubans enjoyed a powerful voice in America's capital. If he barked, Washington jumped.

Fidel has not enjoyed such a large and consistent outpouring of apparent revolutionary fervour for years

And the perception by US politicians that he controlled the highly significant Cuban vote, helped maintain the United States economic embargo against Havana.

But following Mas Canosa's death the Iron Curtain between the two cold war enemies began to melt, as the Clinton administration sought to improve ties with Cuba. The influence of the hardliners among South Florida's exiles also appeared to be waning.

So the emergence of Elian Gonzalez as the poster child-victim of Castro's repressive regime has been exploited to the full by Jorge Mas Santos as he tries to re-establish the supremacy of the Foundation.

He has been at the side of the Miami relatives every step of the way - much to the delight of Fidel Castro, who needs demons for his orchestrated demonstrations to rail against.

Fidel has not enjoyed such a large and consistent outpouring of apparent revolutionary fervour for years.

This polarisation of the Cuban people, and the exiles in Miami, has worrying implications for those hoping for a smooth transition in Cuba when Castro eventually falls from his perch sometime this century.

'Personal tragedy'

The tug of war over Elian has reopened wounds on both sides of the Florida Straits and reduces the chances of a peaceful rapprochement come the hour when some exiles will return to reclaim property taken from them during the Communist years.

But that is in the future. The immediate concern is for the welfare of a six-year-old boy who has suffered the most appalling personal tragedy.

He will remain in the United States at least until 6 March when a federal court is due to hear his case for political asylum.

That means six more weeks of being in limbo. Six more weeks of being the little prince who can do no wrong. Six more weeks of being idolised, showered with gifts, torn between two warring sets of relatives, and two hostile nations.

Psychologist Leonard Haber believes Elian is a resilient child who can be happy once again, either with a loving family in the United States or Cuba. But Dr Haber fears that the boy may suffer long lasting damage if this tug of war is not resolved soon.

Time, he said, is the enemy of Elian Gonzalez.

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