CASTRO attends inauguration of museum exhibit about Elian Gonzalez

Sunday, July 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CARDENAS, Cuba (AP) _ Fidel Castro paid tribute to Elian Gonzalez and his hometown, inaugurating a new museum dedicated to the fight for the castaway boy's return to Cuba last year.

Elian and his family sat in the front row Saturday as Castro recalled Cuba's seven-month campaign for the boy's repatriation. He said Cardenas' 100,000 citizens ``supported this just and appropriate objective.''

``It was the greatest battle that our people ever fought,'' Castro said of the custody fight.

Before the nighttime ceremony, Castro toured the Oscar Maria Rojas Museum in Cardenas, about 85 miles east of Havana, which filled one of its five rooms with photos and newspaper articles on the fight for Elian's return.

The ceremony came one year after Elian, now 7, completed his required studies for the first grade and was deemed ready for the second grade back in his hometown school. His teachers here said the boy fell far behind in his studies while with his relatives in Miami.

``I think that was the greatest objective,'' Castro said of Elian's advancement to the next grade. He called it a ``symbol of education in our country.''

Elian, wearing his school uniform, and his family, were among just a few hundred people _ the vast majority of them children _ attending the ceremony in a small plaza outside the museum, an 1870s building that originally served as a fire station.

The new exhibit is dedicated to the communist government's ``Battle of Ideas'' _ the ongoing ideological campaign begun 19 months ago with the launch of huge rallies and marches across Cuba demanding Elian's repatriation.

It includes photographs and newspaper clippings about the seven-month international child custody battle that began in December 1999, shortly after Elian was found floating on an inner tube off the coast of South Florida.

Inside, 3-foot-tall statue of a boy in a Cuban school uniform, presumably meant to represent Elian, shows the child discarding a Superman doll. Elian reportedly had been fascinated with American superheroes during his stay in Miami and the statue apparently is meant to demonstrate a rejection of capitalist commercialism.

Elian's mother and 10 others perished when their boat sank during an illegal attempt to emigrate to the United States, setting off an ideological struggle that separated Cubans living on both sides of the Florida Straits.

American authorities granted temporary custody of the child to his Miami relatives who, backed by anti-Castro Cuban exiles, fought to keep him in the United States. They argued that the boy should stay because his mother died to bring him there.

Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was backed by Castro in his demands that the child be returned to him in their native Cuba.

After a seven-month battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, American authorities allowed Gonzalez to return to Cuba with his boy a little more than a year ago, on June 28, 2000.

A smaller exposition dedicated to fight for Elian was displayed at another building in Cardenas for a few months before his repatriation.