Little boy lost

Elian Gonzalez is five years old. He watched his mother drown at sea after their boat capsized in an abortive escape from Cuba. He survived two days bobbing on the surface of the Florida straits attached to a piece of rubber tubing. He was rescued by fishermen and picked up by his American relatives on Thanksgiving day. But what should have been a fairytale ending to a tragic story has become a nightmare as two countries squabble over the child's custody

LITTLE ELIAN Gonzalez, his brown eyes pleading for her to keep afloat, watched his mother slip beneath the waves and sink into the depths of the Florida straits after their aluminium boat capsized. Elizabet Broton never re-surfaced. But before she drowned, she managed to tie her five-year-old son to a black rubber inner-tube, and he was left bobbing on the surface. After two terrifying days adrift, the boy was finally rescued when a couple of Florida fishermen scooped him up from the turquoise waters off Fort Lauderdale.

LITTLE ELIAN Gonzalez, his brown eyes pleading for her to keep afloat, watched his mother slip beneath the waves and sink into the depths of the Florida straits after their aluminium boat capsized. Elizabet Broton never re-surfaced. But before she drowned, she managed to tie her five-year-old son to a black rubber inner-tube, and he was left bobbing on the surface. After two terrifying days adrift, the boy was finally rescued when a couple of Florida fishermen scooped him up from the turquoise waters off Fort Lauderdale.

That was three weeks ago; but in many ways it was just the start of Elian's story. Unlike the other 1,300 Cuban refugees to have fled Cuba illegally this year (including more than 60 who drowned in the attempt), Elian has since become a very unlikely hero on both sides of the straits, a "miracle boy" who fulfilled his mother's dream when he entered the United States on Thanksgiving Day. Now he is both survivor and victim, caught in a propaganda war between a superpower in an election year and the Communist island on its doorstep.

After pitching up in Miami, Elian was taken in by the family of his great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who has now hired a team of five lawyers to plead for the boy to be granted political asylum in the US. At the same time, however, his father Juan-Miguel and both sets of grandparents back in Cuba are demanding that they should be given custody. The Cubans claim that a shy boy is being bribed and brainwashed to reject his birthright. For now, his official guardian is Attorney General Janet Reno, a hard-boiled Floridian who may take her time to come to a considered judgement.

Complications have mounted because Cuba never signed the Hague treaty, which would grant automatic custody to a biological parent, so the Florida State courts and Immigration are vying for jurisdiction over what has become a politically charged case. And, of course, 41 years of animosity between the two countries doesn't help. One border official observed slyly that if Elian were Mexican, he'd already have been deported; and that if he were a Cuban cigar instead of a Cuban castaway, he would not have been allowed in in the first place.

This geopolitical tug-of-love has become headline news, and the case is already dominating the annual immigration policy meeting between US and Cuban officials that began in Havana yesterday. Ten days ago, President Castro issued an ultimatum to President Clinton, giving the US 72 hours to return the boy. That deadline came and went, but now Castro is calling for mass protests across Cuba until Elian is sent home. The boy's father, meanwhile, says Elian was kidnapped by his mother, and should be allowed to return: "The law is the law. Elian is my son, my whole life."

In just three weeks, Elian has become a poster boy for Fidel Castro's Cuba; pictures of his wan face are pinned to lapels, blown up across huge billboards, and silkscreened on to T-shirts. In Cuba, his features are now almost as ubiquitous as those of Che Guevara; in Florida, he appears on every news broadcast and front page.

It all seems a far cry from that secretive Sunday morning in late November, when 11 nervous passengers paid an amateur smuggler, Lazaro Munero, $1,000 each for a risky ride to freedom in his 17ft motorboat. Mr Munero was offering cut rates: just 10 per cent of what the pros with fast "cigarette" boats normally charge to drop human cargo within wading distance of a Florida beach. (Under the American "wet foot, dry foot" policy that aims to welcome Cuban defectors without encouraging an outright exodus, refugees found at sea are sent back but those who make it to shore can stay.)

Mr Munero himself had made the crossing in June 1998 without a hitch, but longed for the divorcee girlfriend he'd left behind tending tables in the beach resort of Varadero, just east of Havana. According to friends in Cardenas, he returned for Elizabet Broton about seven months ago. When she was finally persuaded to make the journey with him, she insisted on bringing her only son, Elian. But in the high November seas, the lovers perished and all but three of the refugees drowned.

"I can't imagine that she would do something that would give us such pain," sighed Elian's paternal grandfather, still grieving over the death of his former daughter-in-law. Ms Broton ended the marriage amicably three years ago, and Elian's father has since remarried. Last week, the family put their rusty 1956 Rambler up for sale to raise cash for all the international phone calls. The father's job as a security guard at a tourist amusement park does not pay enough to cover his daily conversations with Elian in Miami.

Already, the legends and conspiracy theories are spinning about the boy. Some say a pair of dolphins led the way to the shipwrecked Elian. Others suspect that his survival was manipulated into a propaganda stunt from the start by rabidly anti-Castro exile groups with names like Cuban Brothers to the Rescue. A poignant photo of Elian, wrapped in a rescue blanket and staring heavenward, was distributed on 4,000 anti-Castro placards at the recent World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle.

"He is one of Castro's victims," maintains Ninoska Perez-Castellon, spokesperson for the Miami-based Cuban-American National Foundation. "Elian's mother lost her life to give him a future." Schoolchildren in Elian's provincial classroom, meanwhile, celebrated his sixth birthday last Monday, with Fidel Castro looking on, by sharing a birthday cake in the shape of Cuba.

Some objective observers have begun to throw doubt on the details of Elian's rescue, however. "Don't you think it's a little odd when a boy who supposedly was stranded at sea for 48 hours has no sunburn, not even chapped lips?" said Dolly Mascarenas, a Cuban-affairs analyst from Spain. Others are puzzled as to how the details of Elian's perilous crossing reached the press so quickly, and how all reports managed to mention that the shipwrecked orphan had lost both his mother and stepfather. According to these sceptics, the whole shipwreck story is a little too neat - a bit fishy, so to speak. So what really did happen?

The official version, at least according to Ricardo Alarcon, speaker of the Cuban Assembly, is that on the Monday, "Cuban coastguard forces detected, within our jurisdictional waters, a vessel carrying a group of people to Florida". He said: "To avoid the use of force and intimidation in order to prevent accidents, it was decided to escort them up to international waters." Mr Alarcon noted that "a fax and a telex were sent to the US Coast Guard patrolling the seas adjacent to Cuba. The messages reported that the vessel carried about 13 people, including children, on the northern coast of Matanzas province, with the intent illegally to enter the territory of the US.'' No further action was taken by Cuban coastguards, until they heard news that the US coastguard had rescued three survivors of a shipwreck near the coast of Florida. Elian Gonzalez was one of them.

The implication is that the deaths could have been prevented if only the US coastguard had acted on the information passed by the Cuban authorities. Whether or not that is correct, officials on both sides of the Caribbean are now agreed that any action taken should be strictly "in the child's best interests". But what are little Elian's best interests? Heated argument pits the notion of parental rights against possible economic opportunity: love versus lifestyle.

From the start, Elian's father Juan-Miguel has resisted the challenge to battle for custody of his son through the Florida courts, where judges are elected and he feels may be swayed by public bias. Shortly after Castro's ultimatum to President Clinton, he received a letter from the US immigration authorities outlining which documents he needs to present in upcoming proceedings. Yesterday, he met in private with US officials in Havana. All the signs are that Mr Gonzalez, who took care of Elian for five days a week, would have little problem proving himself a fit parent.

But should Elian be sent home? Dr Michele Frank, an American doctor with 16 years' experience of working with children in Cuba, thinks so. She is fed up with all the fuss in Miami, where 88 per cent of Cuban exiles polled by the Miami Herald believe that sending Elian back to his family would be capitulating to Castro. "If people in Miami are so convinced that Elian's future as an adult in the States would be superior to anything he would achieve in Cuba, they should find a way to allow the child to make that choice when he comes of age. Meanwhile, let him come back to his father and his two sets of grandparents to let the healing begin," she says.

Whatever happens now, one thing is certain: when little Elian was fished out of the water after two days lost at sea, he can hardly have dreamed that his adventures were only just beginning.

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