Protesters vowed yesterday to bring Miami to a grinding halt if Elian Gonzalez is sent back to Cuba.
The six-year-old survived when his mother drowned last year in an attempt to flee Cuba for the US. Now Elian's father has arrived in the US to reclaim him from relatives who want to keep him there. "I'm going to have my child soon,'' Juan Miguel Gonzalez said after meeting Janet Reno, the US attorney general.
But first, he must overcome the resistance of the boy's Miami relatives, who have cared for him since he arrived last November. They argue that the boy's mother died while trying to save him from Communist Cuba and that he should stay in the United States. It is unclear how this stand-off, which combines emotion, politics and the law in roughly equal measure, will be broken.
The Miami relatives have created a series of delaying conditions - that a court case currently under way should finish, that the father should come to Miami to meet them, that a psychiatrist should examine the boy - and they have also begun to attack the father as an unfit parent.
But the deputy attorney general, Eric Holder, said the government was about to deliver a letter saying that the boy must be transferred to his father. "That will happen very shortly, perhaps as early as today," he said on US television yesterday. Next, they will receive a letter telling them how the transfer will take place. "It is our hope we can work something out so that we can do that in an orderly way with the least disruption to Elian," Mr Holder said. "We have a young boy of tender age and we have to keep his well-being uppermost in our minds." The transfer is likely to take place next week, perhaps on Wednesday.
As news spread on Thursday night that negotiations between the boy's Miami relatives and the US government over Elian's fate had broken down, hundreds gathered at the small bungalow where he has been staying. Cars toured Little Havana sounding their horns, and angry protesters crossed the police barricade.
So far, the demonstrations have been loud and forceful, but usually small and peaceful. But there is a serious possibility that members of Miami's Cuban-American population will block the streets to the city's airport, and jam up the city's already sclerotic traffic system.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, urged people to protest at the Port of Miami, the airport and federal buildings. He told the crowd: "When they don't leave you an option, you must choose - to stand up upon your dignity or live like a slave, humiliated and on your knees for the rest of your life." Though once tied to the militant wing of the anti-Castro movement, Sanchez now urges civil disobedience - usually directed at the US government. "We can't abandon this place because if we do anyone can pick up the boy,'' he told the crowd. "When an authority tells you you are under arrest, put out your hands and let them arrest 100, 200, 300, 500 or 1,000 of us," he said.
The threat of renewed trouble had most Miamians rolling their eyes. Earlier disturbances have irked those who see the Cuban-American militants as a state within a state, and every day the newspapers record fresh evidence of the gulf of understanding between the two communities. Liz Balmaseda, a Cuban American columnist in the Miami Herald, lamented the community's stereotype. "National opinion eclipses our distinct voices, our differences of opinion, our significant questions, our countless other stories of tragic raft voyages from Cuba," she said. "As they see it, we belong to a lunatic fringe, to a single-minded, heartless population intent on kidnapping the son of Juan Gonzalez. To them ... we are, outside the survivalist cults, the only irrational dot on the US map."
Much of the rest of America has watched aghast as the saga has escalated, and it has just reinforced Miami's semidetached image. Television showed two young people who criticised the Miami relatives being chased away and protected by police, hardly an inspiring proof of their dedication to freedom of speech.