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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

War over a poster boy

A child who escaped Cuba to the U.S. is fought over by relatives, and politicians, in both countries

By Tim Padgett/Miami

Time magazine

December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT)

Five-year-old boys need lots of attention, and little Elian Gonzalez has been getting plenty since Thanksgiving morning, when fishermen found him lashed to an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The boy and his mother Elizabet had fled their Cuban town of Cardenas three days before, along with 12 companions, in a small aluminum motorboat, which sank in heavy seas, drowning Elizabet and 10 of the others. After drifting for two days, Elian was rescued in good condition and is being cared for by relatives in Miami. But he cries out at night, fearing that he's being abandoned each time the cousin whose bedroom he shares gets up to use the bathroom. "Physically, he's perfect," says Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, an auto mechanic. "But I worry about what he's in the middle of now."

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Miami's rabidly anti-Castro lobby are poised to lock the little boy in a cold war custody battle between his U.S. relatives and his father and grandparents in Cuba. As soon as Elian was plucked from the ocean, Cuban-American politicians appropriated him as a poster child, even using a photo of him lying on a gurney to illustrate anti-Castro placards distributed at last week's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. "If the image of a child can be effective in campaigns like muscular dystrophy, then it can make people aware of Castro's victims," says Ninoska Perez-Castellon, spokeswoman of the Cuban-American National Foundation in Miami. "Elian's mother lost her life to give him a future." The foundation insists the boy should live with his relatives in Miami, where he was photographed with local politicians like Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as he played with walkie-talkies and other toys they showered on him.

In Cuba, meanwhile, Elian's father Juan Miguel Gonzalez, 31, a tourism employee and Communist Party member, charged that Elizabet, whom he divorced in 1997, had "kidnapped" Elian--and he argued that the child must be returned to live with him. Relatives in Cuba, contacted by TIME, described Elian as a shy but affable and studious first-grader whose most recent childhood passion, besides baseball, is making and flying kites. Standing under a picture of revolutionary hero Che Guevara, and presumably coached by Cuban officials, Juan Miguel declared that he wants Elian to enjoy the free education and health care of his homeland.

U.S. immigration officials have granted Elian permission to stay and apply for residency, but a family court in Florida will probably decide his fate. "I don't want Elian to be subjected to that tug-of-war," says Spencer Eig, the Miami attorney chosen to represent the boy. He is working for an out-of-court settlement between Elian's relatives in the U.S. and in Cuba. But under U.S. laws that deal with Cuba, relatives here can claim that Elian is a political and economic refugee. Still, the more direct blood ties legally favor Elian's father and the boy's four grandparents, who have played a major role in his upbringing. Elian has been especially precious to his parents because they suffered through seven miscarriages before he was born. Juan Miguel told TIME that he sold his car last week to pay for the international phone calls he plans to make to Elian, including the first one last Friday. "The law is the law," he says. "Elian is my son, my whole life."

Elian's case, while unusually heart wrenching, has much in common with other recent waterborne escapes from Cuba. This year the U.S. Coast Guard has intercepted 1,265 Cuban balseros, or rafters--double the number from last year. As many as 60 others are believed to have drowned. Driving the exodus are Cuba's poverty and political repression, generous U.S. immigration rules for Cubans and the unprecedented rise of paid refugee smugglers. Elizabet's boyfriend Lazaro Munero charged $1,000 each from the 13 passengers whom he jammed into his 17-ft. powerboat.

One reason for the hardball in Elian's case: next week U.S. and Cuban officials are set to haggle over immigration issues. Cuba wants Washington to end the "wet feet, dry feet" rules that allow any Cuban who makes it to U.S. soil to be eligible for refugee status, while those intercepted by the Coast Guard are sent back. Elian will be oblivious to the debate: he celebrates his sixth birthday this week.

--With reporting by Dolly Mascarenas/Miami


Cover Date: December 13, 1999

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