Miami braced for last battle over Cuban boy

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The Independent US

The dispute over Elian Gonzalez, the boy of six at the centre of a battle between the United States and Cuba, is opening deep rifts in America, and threatens to boil over into open conflict this week.

Elian survived when his mother and 10 others drowned in their attempt to flee Cuba for the United States last year, and is being cared for by relatives in Miami. The Cuban-American community insists that he must remain in the US, but the boy's Cuban father - who is expected in America this week - wants him back.

The US government has said that the Miami relatives must agree to relinquish the boy if they lose the case over his fate, which is currently wending its way through US courts, or when the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, arrives. They have set a deadline of tomorrow morning for the relatives to meet their conditions, and say they will take the boy away if the relatives refuse.

Angry protesters have insisted that they will not let officials take the boy away and have threatened a massive programme of civil disobedience.

"We have called for people to get ready in the event Elian is deported," said Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Democracy Movement. He promised the group would shut down transport in Miami if police tried to remove the boy. "We are not willing to harm anyone, but we are willing to die to defend the constitutional rights of Elian Gonzalez," he said.

The political circus has put Miami's Cuban-American community in the spotlight, as patriotic heroes or over-zealous ideologues, depending on your viewpoint. Many Americans regard the city as semi-detached from America at the best of times. Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University, once said: "Miami has some of the characteristics of a Third World banana republic."

Alex Penelas, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, said local police would not help remove the boy - a virtual declaration of independence - and the clash between local authorities and the federal government has divided the country and the city. Miami's Anglo community has reacted furiously. "It's high noon in Miami," Richard Allen of Pembroke Pines wrote in a letter to the Miami Herald. "The mayor has sided with the Mob. America must side with the law. God save us all."

The Elian saga has also divided the Democratic Party, with Vice-President Al Gore, the party's candidate for president, now siding with the Miami relatives against the government. George W Bush, the Republican candidate, has demanded that Mr Gore use his influence to get the boy made an American citizen, turning it into the first foreign policy issue of the election campaign.

Large-scale demonstrations were staged in Cuba over the weekend, demanding that the little boy be returned. Raul Castro, the likely successor to Fidel Castro, led thousands of demonstrators in a rally. The American refusal to hand over Elian had revitalised the revolution, said Mr Castro. "They have united us for ever. They do not know what they have done," he said. "Elian today is the symbol of our unity."