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Friday, 4 February, 2000, 18:29 GMT
Elian: View from Cuba

Elian has become a powerful political symbol
By Tom Gibb in Havana

Although the two grandmothers of shipwrecked Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez failed to bring the six-year-old back with them from the United States, they have been treated like conquering heroines since their triumphant return to flag-waving crowds in Havana earlier this week.

Cuban President Fidel Castro says Elian has been kidnapped
In interviews repeatedly re-broadcast on state television, the two have given emotional descriptions of their meeting with Elian in Miami, complaining how they found him changed.

"His little face was so sad ... he wasn't the affectionate boy that we know," said Mariela Quintana.

Egged on by the interviewers, they reserved their harshest words for the Dominican nun sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, in whose Miami house the meeting took place and who is now campaigning for Elian to stay in the United States.

Sister O'Laughlin said she changed her mind because she believed that Elian had "transferred his maternal love" to his cousin in Miami, where he would be able to grow up thinking freely.

"She may be blessed, but blessed by the Devil," said Raquel Rodriguez, Elian's maternal grandmother. Since November when he was shipwrecked off the Florida coast after seeing his mother drown, Elian has been at the centre of an increasingly bitter custody battle - with both sides quarrelling over which society treats its children better.

Elian's Miami relatives say he should not return to an 'oppressive' regime
In Cuba Elian has been turned into a patriotic symbol with which President Fidel Castro has whipped up a wave of nationalist sentiment.

"The image of Elian," read an editorial in the Communist daily newspaper (appropriately called Granma), "is like that of Che. No matter what they do to you, whether they destroy you morally and physically, your image will travel around the world and will remain forever in our hearts and minds."

In Miami Elian is being treated by psychologists, who the Cubans claim are "brainwashing him."

The Cuban Government has prepared its own team of psychologists, if and when he comes back to the island.

In the meantime Fidel Castro is making the most of finding himself on the same side as both the Clinton administration and US public opinion which favours sending the boy back to Cuba.

Hopes and fears

Havana has seen mass protests for Elian's return
State media coverage constantly portrays Cuban American leaders "the corrupt Miami Mafia" as ever more isolated. There is optimism among those both in Washington and in Cuba who would like to see the embargo eased, that the case could in the long term lead to some improvement of US-Cuba relations.

If Elian is not returned, however, Fidel Castro has staked too much credibility on the case to simply do nothing.

Up until now the daily 'send back Elian' rallies have been more hot air than a real threat to the United States. It has been a vehicle allowing Fidel Castro to tighten control in Cuba, while at the same time campaigning for change in Washington's policy.

But if the Federal court in Florida, which will hear the case on 22 February, or Congress prevents Elian's return, the most likely victim would be the migration agreements between the two countries.

Several times in the past Fidel Castro has simply opened the gates to all those Cubans who want to leave, on rafts or speed boats coming over from Miami. It is almost the only card he has which will really hurt in Washington.

If past experience is any guide, he is almost certainly prepared to use it

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29 Jan 00 | Americas
Mass rallies for Elian's return
28 Jan 00 | Americas
Elian family feud hots up
27 Jan 00 | Americas
Elian battle on Capitol Hill
19 Jan 00 | Americas
Elian relatives seek court ruling
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