Cuban-Americans shut down Little Havana as city seethes over US treatment of Elian

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The Independent US

Parts of the city of Miami were shut down yesterday in response to a call from Cuban emigré leaders for a day's work stoppage to protest against the forcible removal of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez at the weekend.

The Little Havana quarter, close to the airport and the city centre, was almost deserted, shops and businesses were closed and traffic on the main thoroughfare was a fraction of its usual level.

The Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan closed her studio for the day, while seven of the Miami Marlins baseball team were excused from yesterday's match. The Miami police force, however, which is more than 50 per cent Hispanic, was up to strength, according to the city authorities, and there was no disruption to the working of the port or the airport, both of which have been obstructed in previous protests.

Some 5,000 city workers stayed at home, given a paid day off by the local authority which was largely sympathetic to the relatives' cause.

Elian, his father, stepmother and stepbrother meanwhile left the guest flat at Andrews air force base near Washington where they had been staying since their reunion on Saturday, and moved to a farmhouse on the edge of Wye River Plantation in rural Maryland. The house was used by the late King Hussein during the 1998 Middle East peace talks and provides a location as secluded and secure as the air force base.

It seems Elian could soon be joined by up to four of his former classmates from Cuba. The United States State Department indicated that it was prepared to rush through visas for the four, with one accompanying adult each, to help Elian adjust to his eventual return. He is expected to remain in the US at least another month, until an appeals court ruling on his status. The hearing is scheduled for 11 May and the ruling could come two or more weeks after that.

Before the family moved yesterday, the Miami relatives had made another vain attempt to see him. Elian's father, Juan Miguel, has refused to have anything to do with the family that virtually adopted Elian after he was rescued last November.

Across the US, opinion on the merits and legality of Saturday's pre-dawn raid remained divided. A majority said that the forcible transfer of the child to his father was justified; only a bare majority, however, approved of the armed raid on the relatives' house. Miami's Cubans remained adamantly opposed to the removal of the child at all.

The attorney general, Janet Reno, was summoned to Capitol Hill to defend her handling of the case to a group of senior senators. The Republicans, most of whom had denounced Saturday's raid, emerged still arguing for an inquiry. The political wisdom of such an inquiry seemed doubtful, however.

President Bill Clinton added his voice to the gathering calls for Elian and his family to be left in peace.