An empty desk awaits return of Elian

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The Independent US

At Marcelo Salado Primary School, a group of Cuban children huddle within the salmon pink walls while a tropical squall blows over. Although school is not in session, they are allowed to watch television while the classrooms get a spring cleaning.

When the new term begins on Monday, there is little chance that Elian Gonzalez, the shipwrecked first grader who has been marooned in Miami while America bickers over his future, will be back at his desk. Instead, as the legal appeals are drawn out, Elian's desk and chair may even be flown north to Washington, where Juan Miguel Gonzalez, his father, waits for the US Immigration Service to reunite him with his son.

Fidel Castro, the Cuban President, has requested US visas for a dozen of Elian's classmates, plus his teacher Yamilin Morales, and will even send over most of their battered schoolroom furniture in order to help the six-year-old make the psychological leap back to his past. Ever since Elian's mother, Elizabet Brotons, smuggled him out of Cardenas on an ill-fated voyage in which all but three drowned, Elian's wooden seat has been empty - a white sign warning: "This chair is untouchable."

The boy may be absent yet his face is everywhere: drawn in pencil, being devoured by a shark labelled "USA"; printed on t-shirts worn to school with shorts and kerchiefs by tiny Communist Pioneers; larger-than-life on posters and hoardings; atop a new seafront statue; and, without fail, on television every afternoon.

Three times the Cuban channels ran the now infamous home video clip from Miami and the petulant little Elian, with a wad of gum in his mouth, telling his father to back off: "Papa, I don't want to go back to Cuba," he said.

Child psychologists in Havana deconstructed every gesture and phrase. "He is like a ventriloquist's dummy. It is lamentable," said one.

When Elian's father was photographed raising his middle finger in an unmistakable gesture of contempt, this was described repeatedly but not shown on prime time Cuban news. "Who could blame him," asked Martha Elena Ramirez, a close family friend. "No one knows what Juan Miguel has been through. But he is the most stubborn man and he will get his boy back. He seemed so hopeful when he phoned us the day before yesterday, so sure that this thing would be resolved. It is cruel."

Her husband, Fidel Ramirez, 32, has worked alongside Mr Gonzalez for 11 years at Josone Park, a grassy tourist attraction in Varadero, two hours ride from Havana. Both men tend outdoor tills at this amusement park where dollar-paying tourists row boats, bowl, or sip rum cocktails. Both are well-paid by Cuban standards. On weekends and school holidays, Elian would chase the ducks around the lawns and skip pebbles across the pond.

Two fishermen discovered Elian tied to a rubber tube.Fidel Ramirez recounts how his friend wept non-stop for three days last November after hearing the ordeal his son had survived. When Mr Gonzalez was informed of his son's state, Fidel says, he immediately phoned his Uncle Lazaro in Miami, and requested that he collect Elian from hospital and "take care of him".

If only Elian's father had been more specific.

The 800,000 Cuban exiles in Miami - from singer Gloria Estefan to Judge Rosa Rodrigues - insist that after Elian's mother sacrificed her life to bring him to freedom, sending the boy back to Cuba with its scarcities of food and wealth would be heartless.

Pale-skinned and photogenic Elian is the ideal poster boy for the Cuban exiles, in contrast to many of his darker-skinned school mates, and his best friend Hanser Muniz Pedroso, who is black. Elian's neighbours in Cardenas worry about his life on America's crime-ridden streets. They decry tactics of bribery and brainwashing and worry that the sensitive Elian has metamorphosed into an all-American brat.

But what makes Mr Ramirez bridle is the suggestion that because Elian's father is quick to anger, the boy is afraid he'll be punished. He said: "If anything he is too patient. I have never seen a bond like the one between this father and son. We used to be late to work some mornings because Elian would grab hold of his father's knees and prevent him from leaving. There is real tenderness between them.

"His Uncle Lazaro saw Elian only once in his life. And on that visit, Mr Gonzalez slept for 15 days in his car just to give Lazaro a bed. He sacrificed for him, and look at the payback."