Havana welcomes Elian as sign of Cuban victory

Boy, family, friends leave U.S. quickly as court order expires

End of 7-month battle

June 29, 2000|By Jean Marbella and Marego Athans | Jean Marbella and Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

HAVANA - With tears and jubilation, Cubans welcomed Elian Gonzalez back to his homeland last night, his seven-month American odyssey ended exactly the way many who fought to keep in him the United States feared - with the boy engulfed in a controlled, flag-waving show of national victory.

The 6-year-old Elian, accompanied by his father, family and friends, landed at Jose Marti Airport here about 7:45 p.m., touching off cheers from the hundreds of schoolchildren organized as a welcoming party on the tarmac and quiet joy among Cubans watching live coverage of the return of a prodigal son.

"Tears come to my eyes because I am a mother and I have been wishing a long time for him to come back," said Eloina Matos, 36, a waitress at an outdoor cafM-i in Havana where a small group of employees and customers were glued to the TV and its wall-to-wall coverage.

Elian and his entourage had wasted little time leaving the United States after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the boy's Miami relatives, who have sought to keep him in America ever since he was rescued off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day.

The sweet-faced boy, who survived a boatwreck that killed his mother and 10 other Cubans fleeing their country, became a cause celebre on both sides of the Florida Straits, with Miami's exile community fighting to keep him from the clutches of their sworn enemy, Cuba's President Fidel Castro.

The high court's decision meant that Elian was free to leave the United States after a stay keeping him there expired at 4 p.m. And quickly, he did just that, with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, making good on his repeated statements that he wanted to return with his son to Cuba rather than defect to the United States as so many others who have had the opportunity have done.

Just before boarding his plane, Juan Miguel Gonzalez approached the microphones and said, "Despite all the suffering of my family, I believe that this has helped me meet some brilliant, wonderful people in this country. And I believe that in the future there can be the same friendship ... between our two countries, between Cuba and the United States."

Castro, who had kept up a drumbeat of pressure for the boy's return through mass rallies and huge billboards, did not appear at the Havana airport. And yet, like a puppetmaster behind the scenes, he orchestrated a low-keyed response to the end of the struggle over Elian.

Television anchors read statements from the Cuban government, asking people to celebrate quietly in their hearts rather than in the streets, reminding them that the U.S. government had worked to reunite the boy with his father and return them to Cuba.

Miami Cubans vilified

It was only the so-called Miami Mafia, the Cuban exiles who abandoned their homeland for the United States, who were trying to prevent the boy from leaving, the state-controlled TV anchors said.

Cubans expressed hope that the resolution of Elian's fate would signal a new era in the long-running tensions between the two countries.

"He is an innocent child; he is not responsible for the politics," said Carlos Martinez, an electrician celebrating both his 34th birthday and Elian's return at one of the El Rapido chain of cafes in Havana.

"I listened to the words of the father about the friendships he made in American and I wonder if the U.S. and Cuba can also be friends again."

When the plane landed, gliding toward the family members and arrayed schoolchildren, cheers resounded, both on the tarmac and across Havana.

When the plane door opened, and Juan Miguel Gonzalez carried his son down the stairs, the children began singing the national anthem and the boy was quickly embraced by relatives.

It was several moments before Elian's feet touched Cuban ground: He was passed relative to relative in a personal mosh pit.

He and his family and friends were expected to spend several weks in a government guest house in Havana before he returns to his hometown of Cardenas.

Watching the reunion scene on TV, Cubans sighed happily. Small cheers erupted, tears of happiness were wiped away.

Yet, many Cubans were not even watching the arrival on television. In a city where very few of the restaurants have TV sets, many Cubans behaved as if it were just another night. They gathered over Cristal beers with friends, they strolled in the cool evening after a typically hot day, and they fussed over their aging cars.

Elian's last day in the United States had begun in Washington, inside the yellow clapboard house on rolling grounds near the National Cathedral in Cleveland Park, where the Gonzalez family had been staying for more than a month.

A gaggle of curiosity-seekers, TV news crews and protesters gathered outside. With news helicopters humming overhead and U.S. marshals watching, four members of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition held up handmade signs that read, "Shame," "Pray for Elian" and "Back to No Future."

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