In Little Havana, Elian Gonzalez is a symbol of freedom. To his father, he's just a little boy lost

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The Independent US

It is only half a block long, this cold war battlefield, set incongruously in the suburbs of Miami. The television crews control most of it, and they sit in their little tents sipping bottled water. The voices of the reporters occasionally rise above the sound of aircraft on their way to the airport and the cockerel which crows in a nearby garden. Satellite masts rise high above the neat little houses like the totems of a futuristic religion; cables run along the pavement like ley lines.

This is where Elian Gonzalez lives - for now. His mother tried to bring the six-year-old boy to America from Cuba, but their boat sank, drowning her and 10 others. Elian survived, and now he is at the centre of a ferocious battle. His father, in Cuba, wants him home. His new family - the assorted aunts, uncles and cousins in Little Havana - want him to stay. Irresistible force and immovable object are threatening to collide outside this small beige house with its giant American and Cuban flags fluttering limply in the weak breeze.

Elian's father, Juan-Miguel Gonzalez, is coming to America courtesy of Fidel Castro. But only if the US government promises to release the boy. The Miami relatives refuse to commit themselves to handing him over, whatever the outcome of the labyrinthine legal proceedings which are supposed to determine his fate. Every night, protesters affirm their solidarity with Elian; they will not let him go back to Cuba - and if the government tries to force the issue, there is no saying what will happen.

The battle has become an emblem not just of the tensions between America and Cuba, one of the world's last refuges for Communism, but also of this community, its values and its place in the US.

Alex Penelas, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, warned this week that he would not be responsible for the consequences if the government came to get the boy. "It is very clear that we will not lend our respective resources - police or otherwise - to assist the federal government in any way, shape or form to repatriate Elian Gonzalez to Cuba," he said. That is fighting talk, almost a declaration of independence for Little Havana, and it left many uneasy. Some of the local mayors have distanced themselves from Mr Penelas. Others back him to the hilt.

Janet Reno, the US Attorney General, is normally calm and analytical, but she became emotional this week as she spoke about the looming crisis. Miss Reno is from Miami. "It is a community I was born in, raised in," she said, her voice quavering. "And when it's hurting it hurts me."

She spoke movingly of the Cuban Americans who came to Florida after the revolution in 1959, seeking a new life butnever forgetting their homeland. Ms Reno was once very popular here, and was elected by large margins when she was a local politician. Now, while some call Mr Castro the devil, Ms Reno is labelled as Lucifer.

For the American friends of Elian, this is about more than a legal case, more even than politics. Posters compare the boy with the baby Jesus. "Elian knows Christ," the caption says. "The others don't." One bishop has taken the parallel further, comparing Mr Castro to Herod. A smudge on a bank's window last week was called an image of the virgin Mary. A spot on Elian's bedroom mirror is said to resemble the Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the most powerful symbols of the Catholic church in Latin America.

Much of this has been whipped up by self-interested figures, but it is too easy to dismiss the phenomenon as hysteria. Cuban Americans believe devoutly in their God and their country, just like those who want the boy reunited with his father, and family is of the utmost importance. But the belief that Communism and Fidel are the ultimate evil transcends even these beliefs: it helps to define the community.

Mr Castro has been demonised. Some people believe that he needs the boy for an arcane ritual of Santeria, a pagan religion which can be found throughout the Caribbean. Elian's great uncle tried to pass a note to the boy's Havana family via a Catholic nun, warning them of Castro's evil intent.

In Cuba, too, the boy has become emblematic of something far greater, a saint in the secular pantheon of revolution. Posters show him with Che Guevara and Jose Marti. Another shows him being rescued by dolphins. Divine intervention is credited by both sides for saving the boy. A grandstand is being built in Havana for his return.

Everyone has something to gain from the cult of Elian. Miami's Cuban Americans have been given a rallying cry just as the White House was trying to relax relations with Havana, and its younger members seemed less interested in the cause. Mr Penelas, a rising young politician, has had more national air time than he could have dreamt of. Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for President, shifted sides to back the Miami relations this week - Florida is a big state with a lot of electoral college votes. Meanwhile, Mr Castro has a potent symbol for the promotion of his threadbare revolution.

Because he is so young and innocent, people can depict Elian as they like - as the airbrushed figure on a poster outside the house who "only wants to live in liberty", or as the innocent pawn of politicians, or a child separated unjustly from his father. America is supposed to be a country governed by laws, not men, but in situations like this - where there is no consensus behind those laws, and where one segment of the community disputes them - it becomes apparent how fragile the sense of unity is. The American flags which fly outside the small house in Miami and the Justice Department in Washington do not necessarily mean the same thing.

No one can say what will happen when Juan-Miguel reaches America. If the relatives refuse to return the boy, it seems unthinkable that the government would risk a conflagration in Little Havana. He is just a six-year-old boy, when all is said and done. But then, for both sides, that is precisely the point.

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