Elian's Father Honored As a Hero

Thursday, July 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) — Praising Elian Gonzalez's father for shunning bribes to defect during his seven-month fight to bring his son back to Cuba, President Fidel Castro awarded him one of Cuba's highest civilian honors, formally making him a modern day communist hero.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez said during the ordeal that anti-communist Cuban exiles in Miami, who abhor Castro and his government, had offered him $2 million if he would stay in the United States with Elian. Gonzalez, a member of Cuba's Communist Party, said at the time he was offended by the offer.

``His conduct was filled with glory and he gained for always the admiration of his people,'' Castro said at the Wednesday night ceremony.

Gonzalez had tears in his eyes when Castro pinned on his dark suit the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes medal and compared Elian's father to Cespedes, an independence hero and the father of Cuba.

``A small boy and a humble Cuban father, whom very few people knew just a few months ago, came back converted into gigantic moral symbols of our homeland,'' Castro told the audience of 5,000, including top government and party officials.

Then, directly addressing Gonzalez, Castro said: ``You showed that in the decisive moments in the history of a country, the conduct of a man can overcome all of the traitors put together ...

``Our most important revolutionary duty is to fight to make sure that this does not happen again,'' Castro said. ``We will keep fighting. And we will conquer!''

``I owe this to all the people of Cuba,'' Gonzalez, 31, said, following a standing ovation. ``I have not done anything out of this world. I have done what any other father would have.''

Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly and Gonzalez's adviser during the fight for his son, earlier read a resolution by Cuba's ruling Council of State selecting Gonzalez for the award.

``Juan Miguel Gonzalez stoically endured the most cruel suffering of his son, of himself and of his family,'' it said. He ``resisted with his entire being the threats, the pressures and the slanders and rejected with honor the intents to bribe and of force, always maintaining his fidelity to the nation.''

Several hours before, state television aired images of a timid but happy Elian as he rode his bicycle and tried on a pair of inline skates in his hometown, then splashed in a pool at a nearby resort.

The images, taken Tuesday afternoon during a surprise visit by Elian and his family to their hometown of Cardenas, were some of the first shown of the boy since his return to Cuba on June 28.

The video clips showed scores of residents cheering as a bus carrying the family drove down the streets of the small port city, about 90 miles east of Havana. At his school, Elian was greeted by his classmates, and a teacher leaned down to show him pictures and something written in a book.

As soft music played in the background, the 6-year-old was shown curiously rummaging through his clothes and toys at the homes of his paternal and maternal grandparents. His face lit up when he seemed to recognize toys he had not seen since November, when his mother took him with her on a boat bound for the United States.

Elian became the subject of an international custody dispute after the boat sank, killing his mother and 10 others. The boy, then 5, was found off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day, floating on an innertube.

Cuba says Elian gave a human face to its four-decade political battle with the United States, allowing many ordinary Americans their first close look at the communist nation. The case also underscored U.S. immigration policies that Cuba says encourages its residents to make illegal attempts to reach the United States.

``With Elian, coverage has been given to an affair that habitually was a theme only for political scientists and specialists,'' Alarcon said in an interview published Wednesday in a special newspaper supplement about Elian.

For the first time, he said, many Americans heard of the Cuban Adjustment Act, a 1966 law that allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to apply for permanent residency, even if they entered the country illegally.

Despite the televised images taken by a sole government cameraman, all other journalists have been kept away from the boy since shortly after he arrived.

Cuban officials long promised to prevent the kind of massive media coverage the child experienced during the five months he stayed with his Miami relatives while they fought all the way to the Supreme Court in a losing battle to keep him in the United States.