As America waits for Elian's father, Little Havana simmers

The moment of truth is approaching for Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy who has come to symbolise the tensions between Cuba and the United States. The boy survived when his mother fled to America; she did not. With 10 others, she drowned. Now, Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, is coming to America, and he wants to return with his son.

They are preparing for that eventuality in front of the beige bungalow in Little Havana where the boy lives with his uncles, aunts and cousins. Like Elian's mother, most of the crowd fled from Cuba, and they will not let him go back.

Most are in their fifties or sixties. They are dressed in T-shirts, jeans and trainers, and wearing baseball caps or battered straw hats, but the man who drills them, Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Democracy Movement, is in an elegant dark suit and polished black brogues. He gives his orders through a megaphone, taking them through the manoeuvres that they will execute when and if the authorities come for the boy. They stamp their feet, then march forward five paces. They sit, arms linked, in a "democracy chain". They stand (with difficulty in some cases).

The Immigration and Naturalisation Service has made clear that when Juan Miguel comes - perhaps today - the boy must go to him. That helped to heat the already agitated crowd in Little Havana to boiling point yesterday. "Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Jesus? Support this kid and save him from the Dictator!" shouts Elias Hernandez, wagging his finger for emphasis as the cameras watch. As the day winds on, a hundred or so more gather in the street, and a motorcade drives down Flagler Street, horns blaring.

In between the manoeuvres, there is plenty of lecturing through the public address system that has been rigged up, the loudspeaker perched on (and later in) a dustbin. One after another, people step up to excoriate Cuba's President Fidel Castro, the US attorney general, Janet Reno, Fidel Castro, President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro again.

The Hispanic population of Miami-Dade County has gone up from single figures 40 years ago to more than 50 per cent today, largely because of the arrival of the Cuban exiles.

Voting here tends to be polarised on ethnic lines. The Cuban-American community, still a relative newcomer to America, has its own institutions, restaurants, neighbourhoods and political identity, like many others. But it also has a political cause that still unites at least the older generation.

The street is warm and dusty, crowded with about 50 protesters crammed into a small area. Beyond the metal barrier there is a long stretch of empty street in front of the bungalow where the camera crews await the moment. Not much has happened here for several days. The action is elsewhere - at the attorney general's office downtown, in Washington at the Justice Department and the Cuban interests section, and in Havana.

Miami is growing restive at all the attention, most of it negative. In a testy editorial, The Miami Herald yesterday addressed the reporters who have descended on the city. "In recent memory, Miami has been described as Paradise Lost, America's Cocaine Capital and Riot Central - a place where vice, drugs, corruption and illegal immigrants commingle in an overheated stew," it says. "Some of it, of course, is true, just as a caricature holds some truth. But as with a caricature, the truth can be lost in the exaggeration." The city should be seen as a successful example of modern America, not a crucible of molten racial tension, it says.

Americans were shocked when the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Alex Penelas, said that local police would not help take Elian away. The parallel was drawn by many people between his defiance and the local officials in the 1960s who said they would not help to desegregate schools.

That was a message which shocked many in America's black community, which has often found itself in conflict with the Cuban-Americans. "When riots erupted in Miami's black communities several times in the 1970s and 1980s, allegations by blacks of mistreatment by Cubans were usually raised as underlying factors," wrote the Hispanic journalist Juan Gonzalez in his book Harvest of Empire.

Many Floridians were shocked too: that is not the city they see. The Herald's letters pages have been riven by dissenting arguments over the Elian saga; most of those advocating that the boy remain in America have Hispanic names, while the other side has mostly Anglo names. The Herald has cut back the number of letters in the past few days.

There is a sense of frustration and embarrassment in the city and people are not keen to talk about it. "I just can't believe this is still going on," said a woman in a record shop in Miami Beach, who preferred not to be named. "This is just crazy. They should let the boy go. Now."

Most of America thinks the same, according to opinion polls. All of the polls show that a majority believe Elian belongs with his father in Cuba, and that belief does not vary significantly by party political affiliation. But in some ways, it is precisely that sense of isolation - of being misunderstood, fighting for justice on their own - which drives the crowd in Little Havana. Like many such communities, the sense of exile forges their conviction.

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