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A year later Elian is back where he started

By Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau Chief

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.


In this story:

In pursuit of normalcy

In pursuit of politics

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- One year ago, a 5-year-old Cuban boy and his mother left the seaside town of Cardenas in the dark of night in an overcrowded, makeshift boat. She hoped to make a new life for her son and herself in the United States.

  GALLERY
 

One year later, the boy who became a living symbol of 40 years of political conflict between Cuba and the United States is back in his hometown, living with his father, stepmother, half-brother and grandparents.

The seemingly interminable 7-month tug-of-war over Elian Gonzalez between the Cuban-exile community in Miami, Florida and the Communist-run island has passed. He is no longer being paraded in front of the American news media, nor do his name and face appear on billboards all over Cuba calling for the people to fight for his freedom.

Last Thanksgiving Day, Elian was being rescued from an inner tube floating in the sea near the Florida coast, the sole survivor among the 14 people on the boat. This year he can expect to pass the day like any other in Cuba, going to school.

In pursuit of normalcy

Whether the experience of watching his mother drown at sea and his family fight over him has scarred Elian is unclear. The boy is jealously guarded from the media by his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who vowed never to allow another television camera near his son once he returned home.

Police patrol around his home and school in Cardenas to ensure that journalists cannot come even within shouting distance. Gonzalez has declined numerous interview requests by CNN and others to discuss how he and his son are doing.

"I want privacy. I want a normal life for my family after all we've been through," Gonzalez said shortly after he returned to Cuba with Elian in June.

Other family members, such as Elian's great-aunt, Olga Hernandez, are more willing to discuss what has happened since.

"Elian is a happy, normal boy," Hernandez told CNN. "You would never guess all he has suffered. He plays and laughs and doesn't seem to have any traumas. It's amazing."

The last time journalists were allowed to observe Elian was on September 1, the first day of the school year. He chanted slogans praising communism and revolutionary hero Che Guevara with all the other children, just as he did before his encounter with capitalism.

One of Elian's classmates, Hanser, said he is a good friend. "We play a lot and have lots of fun."

Indeed, everyone in Cardenas seems to want to help Elian feel as normal as possible again. The whole town was brought together before he came home to discuss the transition. Psychologists were brought in to talk with people, and adults as well as children were instructed not to point at him or to make any special fuss over him.

In pursuit of politics

But for the Cuban government, which in the words of President Fidel Castro "mobilized an unprecedented number of Cuban citizens and resources" in the so-called "battle for Elian," things are different now.

"One year later I can say that today the people of the United States know the reality of Cuba better, and they now understand that they, too, are victims of their government's irrational and obsolete policies toward Cuba," Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez told CNN last week, when asked about the long-term impact of the Elian affair.

It is true that in the past year there has been an unprecedented push in the U.S. Congress to lift or at least ease Washington's nearly 40-year-old economic embargo against Cuba. Just how much of this is due to the Elian saga, however, is difficult to measure.

What is indisputable is that Elian's return to Cuba was a resounding political victory for Cuba's president and a devastating blow to the anti-Castro Cuban-exile community in the United States.

In Cuba, Castro brought out millions of Cubans onto the streets, his government organizing daily demonstrations and debates month after month. For him, it was about more than just a little boy. It was about Cuba's ability to defy and defeat the United States morally and politically.

"It is as if he were a general overseeing a great battle, moving his troops into position, plotting tactics and strategy, organizing skirmishes and conducting psychological warfare to undermine the enemy," author Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker magazine in February 2000.

Castro channeled the emotions evoked among people by the custody battle into a political education campaign with a consistency and thoroughness not seen even in the early stages of the revolution. No one was excluded, especially not children. The idea was to strengthen nationalism and rekindle a sagging revolutionary fervor, particularly among Cuba's increasingly disenchanted younger generations.

"This year of mobilizations has brought out the best in us," Perez said. "It's bolstered the ideas of the revolution and given young Cubans who didn't live through those early days a chance to realize their real vocation."

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

Though many Cubans did participate in the Elian campaign with enthusiasm, it is equally true that others here felt manipulated, even as they agreed that Elian should be with his father. The feeling among the majority of Cuban people these days is one of overwhelming relief that it is over.

For them it was something like going through what the American public is going through now, with the media saturation of the U.S. election impasse -- but for seven months straight and with no other channel to turn to.

As for the little boy whose tragedy provoked such a storm: By all accounts he is settling in fairly well, as his family does its best to help him be like everyone else, to make sure he is not treated differently from anyone else.

That, of course, may be impossible. The name "Elian Gonzalez" is unlikely to be forgotten for at least a generation of Cubans both here and in the United States.




RELATED STORIES:
CNN.com: U.S. News
CNN.com: World -- Americas
y: Cuba wary about Washington's talk of easing embargo
July 28, 2000
y: Cuba united against U.S. over Elian
January 28, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Gramma Internacional Digital, Cuba
U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. State Department
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service

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