The little boy who divided America

The snatching of Cuban child Elian Gonzalez has enraged groups that adopted his plight as a channel for their hatred of Fidel Castro's regime
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The Independent US

Calm may have returned to the streets of Miami last night. But the rage over Elian Gonzalez, the boy cast ashore in the United States and now returned to his father, will not end for many Cuban Americans and their supporters.

Their fight to keep the six-year-old boy in Miami has alienated much of the rest of the United States, and driven a wedge into public opinion. The result is an unstable situation, leaving many Cuban Americans feeling isolated, angry and vengeful. For many on the libertarian right-wing, it is further proof that their national government is the enemy.

The news that US officials had taken the boy in a dawn raid brought thousands to the streets of Little Havana on Saturday. Some cried, some stopped traffic, and some threw rocks or set light to tyres. Tear gas hung in the air as police waded in to break up the demonstrations and arrest the protesters. Some waved Cuban flags, the emblem of a nation they consider theirs; others waved the stars and stripes daubed with swastikas to express their rage.

For the Cuban Americans and their supporters in the United States, the taking of Elian is bitter gall. Liz Balmaseda, a columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote: "If the president believes the thug display by armed federal agents against a horrified six-year-old child constitutes the right thing to do, then we must ask him this: What country do you govern, sir? Is it the United States or is it Cuba?"

Jorge Mas Santos, leader of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), arrived moments after federal agents had left the bungalow in Little Havana with the boy. His wordswere drenched in bitterness. "The administration never had any intention of reuniting this family. Never," he said.

The loss of Elian is a defeat for the leadership of the Cuban-American community, yet it is a fight they would probably have preferred not to pick. The CANF, the leading right-wing Cuban group, first politicised the boy's plight using pictures of him in leaflets protesting Fidel Castro's planned attendance at last year's World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle. But the battle had become increasingly unwinnable.

The CANF once depended on its ability to win battles in Washington and on the streets of Miami. It has lost badly this time, but that does not mean the anger is in any way diluted.

Since the revolution, one segment of the community has remained intractably opposed to the regime in Havana, dedicated to its overthrow. The US government has used this bile for its own ends, in the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and in innumerable CIA covert operations.

But the Cuban Americans feel they have been repeatedly cast aside when larger issues threatened. For them, Bill Clinton is another in a line of Democrats that started with John F Kennedy, the man who would not call in the air support they needed when their comrades in Brigade 2506 were dying on the beach at Playa Giron all those years ago.

The nub of the Miami Cubans' protest was their cast-iron conviction that the father, Juan Miguel, is the puppet of Fidel Castro. Seen through their prism, his reluctance to come to the US, and then Miami, was seen as ordered by Havana. Alternatively, it was seen as a signal from a father who was not free to speak that he really wanted his son to remain in the United States.

Members of the crowd outside the house frequently expressed frustration that mainstream America seemed to treat them as ranting extremists and did not understand what to them was blindingly obvious: that no one in his right mind would want to remain in Cuba and would not want his son to grow up in America. They saw his desire to reclaim his son as a "selfish" attitude that only harmed his son's prospects of happiness and wealth.

In reality, the Cuban Americans have lost the argument over Elian. While many support the relatives, many more believe the boy should be with his father. Miami has seemed increasingly detached from the nation during this long saga, defying the government, but also swimming against a wider sense of what most saw as right. That divide will make it harder for the Cuban American community to make its case the next time it has to win an argument, over maintaining the embargo, for example. But it has also left the community feeling as if they have been backed into a corner.

President Clinton knows all too well how politically dangerous the Cuban problem can be - he blamed his defeat as Governor of Arkansas on the arrival of thousands of Cuban refugees in his state after the Mariel boatlift. And he also knows how incendiary the issue can be: after all, Janet Reno, his Attorney General, was a district attorney in Miami.

Miami knows rage. It has burned before, in a series of riots when the black community's anger spilled onto the streets. And the city also knows the not only the violence of the drug trade, but also the assasinations and car bombings as those within the Cuban-American community settled scores. But the Cuban Americans will have strong support from America's right, which sees the Elian case as the latest in a saga of federal outrages by the Clinton administration: from Waco to Little Havana.

There is a potent narrative taking shape here that will lead many to conclude again that their government must be resisted. National Review magazine wrote on its website: "In editorialising on the Elian Gonzalez case, we've asked the question 'Are We Still America?' It seems that question may have been answered in Miami on Saturday morning."

Isis Cardoso was out on the streets this weekend, and she told the Herald of her anger and frustration. "As long as we can't fight in our own homeland," she said, "all we can do is fight on the streets of Miami." The demonstrators on Saturday night chanted: "Libertad! Libertad!" But they also chanted: "Clinton, Miami is burning!"