A pawn in a political battle

'El Milagro': The Cuban 'miracle' boy has become a larger-than-life symbol for the sdults fighting over his future

January 31, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

He is a modern-day Moses, a baby-prophet afloat not in a basket but an inner tube.

He is an angel, arriving on Thanksgiving Day under the protection of dolphins.

He is a miracle, a survivor of a perilous journey that has vanquished stronger adults.

With the weight of myth, the burden of history and the hopes of Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits bearing down on Elian Gonzalez's shoulders, it's difficult to remember what he really is -- a 6-year-old boy.

But for all the media images of Elian as just another child playing with his dog or kicking a soccer ball, he has become larger than life, more symbol than individual for those who have jumped into the fray over his future. As the fight enters its 10th week, his life has become a cause.

"That's part of what is sad about this," said Gustavo Perez Firmat, a humanities professor at Columbia University and a Cuban exile. "It's not about him anymore."

What would otherwise be a simple custody case, in which a child who has lost his mother goes to live with his father, has become something else entirely.

"It's a family law case -- at the heart of it is where a child should live. But people are using it for all sorts of other means and motives. It's just tragic," said Barbara Babb, a law professor at the University of Baltimore who teaches courses on families and children.

What observers see in Elian often says more about the observers than the boy: It's the last gasp of a Cold War that has ended everywhere but that 90-mile stretch of water between Cuba and the United States. Or it'sthe right of a parent to choose how, and where, his son will live. Or it's the opportunity for a child to have a better life, one chosen by countless other immigrants before him who have been allowed to stay in the United States.

In Miami, Elian has become the center of intense devotion. The exile community is fighting yet another political battle in its undying war against Fidel Castro, but there is something more to this one.

"Es Elian un angel?" a columnist asked in Friday's El Nuevo Herald, a Spanish-language newspaper in Miami -- and answered, essentially, yes.

The stuff of myth

Like something out of a mystical Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, Elian's story has taken on a magical aspect. His survival, clinging to an inner tube as most of the others on the ill-fated boat drowned, was astonishing, but it has taken on mythic proportions: Dolphins, many Miamians are saying, surrounded the floating boy to protect him from sharks. Or, Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint and the protector of those lost at sea, guided him to safety.

As fantastical as such talk may seem to outsiders, there's no mistaking the sincerity with which some in Miami's exile community view Elian's larger role.

"I really think the child was heaven-sent on a mission of peace and family reunification," said Elly Chovel, who heads a Cuban-American group and who recently met with Elian at the home of his Miami relatives. "He has come to teach us.

"He arrived on Thanksgiving Day, and he was saved, and it was a miracle," said Chovel, whose Operation Pedro Pan Group is composed of grown-up Cuban children whose parents sent them to the United States in the early 1960s to escape the new communist regime. "This child has a much deeper meaning than this one local battle."

"El Milagro," they are calling it, the miracle. Wherever Elian goes in public, people try to touch him or otherwise bask in his aura. Artists have painted him surrounded by dolphins or angels; pundits have compared him to Moses, that other baby who floated away from evil to lead his people to freedom, or even the Messiah.

"He has become semidivine," said Fernando Gonzalez-Reigosa, dean of the Honors College at Florida International University in Miami and a researcher of myths in Cuban culture. "The extraordinary circumstances of his survival, the fact that he was rescued from the waters -- for what? There must be a purpose, because miracles don't happen for nothing. He's the messenger of hope. He's going to be the one to save Cuba."

Cuban exiles in Miami are not the only ones who have embraced a mythic Elian. Back in Cuba, where cults of personality surround such figures as Jose Marti and Che Guevara, Elian's image is everywhere: on posters, T-shirts and placards waved at numerous rallies held to demand his return. A little shrine of flowers and messages has been erected on his desk at his school in Cardenas, and no one is allowed to sit there as his classmates await his return.

Like a baby Che, Elian has become a symbol of the Cuban Revolution, a rallying point in the never-ending struggle against U.S. imperialism and the Miami-based "gusanos," or worms, as those who have abandoned Cuba are called.

"Now Elian isn't just my son," Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez was quoted as saying in a recent edition of Granma, the government-controlled newspaper. "He belongs to all of Cuba."

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