Cuba masses for final Elian rally

Hundreds of thousands of protesters were mobilising yesterday to swarm the streets of Las Tunas, an agricultural town in southern Cuba, to demand the return of Elian Gonzalez, the castaway they claim America is holding hostage.

Since it became evident that the Cuban president Fidel Castro and US president Bill Clinton agree on this issue, that the six-year-old belongs with his father, public perception of the motherless boy has altered. In Cuba, little Elian is now seen less as a hero, more as a victim of a grotesque custody battle between enemy countries.

The Cuban leader, who once fought a bitter court battle to reclaim his own son after his first wife spirited him to Mexico, has been obsessed with the Gonzalez case from the outset. For nearly five months, Fidel Castro has parleyed the boy's plight into a national rallying cry against the Cuban exiles in Miami. The mass protest across the island has galvanised Cuba's schoolchildren and given them a pint-size hero of their own, whose face is as ubiquitous as Che Guevara's on T-shirts and banners.

But as the custody case nears a climax, President Castro uncharacteristically has declined to comment. At the closing ceremony of the South Summit, before the assembled leaders of 133 developing nations, Mr Castro alluded to the Titanic disaster, and said that only through unity "could the Third World avoid hitting the iceberg and drowning us all."

Yet the shipwreck metaphor did not tempt him to say any more about the outcome of the Gonzalez case, which is making headlines around the world.

The official government newspaper, Granma, and Ziambabwe's President Mugabe filled the breach and blasted Miami's exile community for frustrating delays. The rhetoric reflected increasing exasperation and fury. "They are looking for a political Bay of Pigs" by "stamping on a father's love", the newspaper said.

Mr Mugabe told Cuban reporters: "To use a son like that for political purposes is the greatest harm you can do to him. It is just barbaric."

Now Elian's long-awaited comeback will be kept low key. There are no more plans for a heroic welcome parade in Havana. Psychological counselling for the lad is now a national priority, particularly after the broadcast of a controversial home video clip that showed the boy mouthing, apparently after coaching by the Miami relatives, "Papa, I don't want to go back to Cuba". How to de-programme the miracle survivor is a delicate issue in Havana. After being kept in the media spotlight in Miami it will not be easy for him to readjust to relative obscurity in Cardenas, his home town.

Both sets of grandparents await the imminent return of Elian Gonzalez, their prodigal grandson, in Havana. They have been moved to a secure house in the capital's diplomatic zone. Analysts predict that Juan Miguel Gonzalez, the beleaguered father who confounded Castro-baiting exiles by choosing not to defect with his family when given a visa to Washington, will be rehoused with them during his son's transition period. But life may not be the same for this humble cashier.

As a high-profile Communist party member, Mr Gonzalez can now expect to receive "la jaba" - or a bag of goodies. This monthly perk, worth nearly £10, consists of extra rations of beans, rice, cooking oil and toiletries which are often scarce. In addition, the Gonzalez family are likely to get passes to cultural events, baseball games, discos and restaurants reserved for the party élite. Access to the best medicine, including expensive drugs which the US trade embargo makes unavailable to the general public in Cuba, may also be proffered.

The Miami relatives who have been looking after Elian since his rescue now face multiple court actions from the US government, which wants the child handed over to his father immediately. On Friday, the US immigration service formally transferred custody rights from them to the father, placing the relatives in breach of the law.

The family responded late on Friday night, saying that they had obtained a sworn statement from a Cuban emigré, now in the US, who knew the Gonzalez family back in their home town. The document, as read out to reporters by the relatives' spokesman, says that Juan Miguel Gonzalez was knownas a violent man who beat his wife and "abused" his son.

The spokesman declined to produce the author of the statement, who was identified only by the surname Rodriguez. Pressed to explain why this statement had been made only now, he said that the author had relatives in Cuba and was afraid of what Fidel Castro might do to them.

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