Elian Homecoming Is Anticlimactic

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) — In the end, the seven-month battle over Elian Gonzalez that divided Americans and united Cubans concluded with a simple ceremony at Havana's international airport attended by the little boy's family and 800 schoolmates.

While the children cheered his arrival, there were no spontaneous celebrations along Havana's streets when his plane touched down at a remote terminal of Jose Marti International Airport.

There were no speeches, no car-honkings that might have been expected somewhere else for such a momentous occasion. Cuban President Fidel Castro didn't even show up.

The anticlimactic end to the international custody battle was no accident: The Cuban government — intent on sparing Elian the ``circus-like'' atmosphere that surrounded his Miami stay — told Cubans not to take to the streets in celebration.

They dutifully obeyed.

Cubans watched the arrival of their 6-year-old ``prince'' on television, quietly thrilled they had won the latest round in the four-decade-old battle with the United States.

``I'm very happy,'' said Magniuris Ordunez as she waited for a flight to Baracoa at the airport, where Elian's arrival was broadcast live on TV monitors. ``I've never met him, but he is marvelous.''

Thursday morning, Cuban television replayed Elian's airport arrival and ran old photos of him in his school uniform. Granma, the official daily of Cuba's Communist Party, headlined ``Finally, in his homeland'' and ran a photo essay of his grandparents and other relatives embracing him at the airport.

Elian's saga — launched by a failed crossing to the United States in November and decided by a 26-word Supreme Court decision Wednesday afternoon — concluded shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday night.

A jet carrying him and his family pulled up on the tarmac to a group of 800 of his classmates — bused from Cardenas 90 miles to Havana in their school uniforms. The children jumped up and down and waved plastic Cuban flags.

As the boy emerged, smiling shyly and apparently overwhelmed as his father helped him down the steps, the children chanted ``Elian! Elian! Elian.'' They then broke into a round of the Cuban national anthem.

Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly and Castro's point man on the Elian case, attended the welcoming, but made no official remarks.

After being embraced by his grandparents and other relatives, the family sped off in a motorcycle-led motorcade to an undisclosed location for a private reunion. Reportedly, they spent the night at a special boarding school in the capital's upscale Playa neighborhood.

Streets around the two-story house were blocked off Thursday morning, and police barred reporters from passing.

Official announcements on Cuban state radio and television said the family and some of Elian's classmates and teachers would stay there for two or three weeks before returning to Cardenas.

The boy's teachers must ``undertake the masterful work of making him a model child,'' said the statement, without elaborating.

Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who took his wife and infant son to the United States in April to bring his boy home, told reporters before leaving Washington that he hoped the episode could improve relations between the Cold War rivals.

``I am extremely happy ... being able to go back to my homeland. I don't have words, really, to express what I feel,'' he said just before boarding the jet at Washington's Dulles International Airport.

Gonzalez grabbed his son's hand and led him up the steps of the chartered jet, where Elian said goodbye to America with a wave and a smile.

Elian seized the attention of America and Cuba from the moment he was found clinging to an inner tube on Nov. 25 by two men on a fishing trip off the Florida coast. The boat taking him on the 90-mile voyage from Cuba to the United States sank, drowning his mother, her boyfriend and nine others.

For five months he stayed in Miami's Little Havana with his father's uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who was granted temporary custody and fought to keep him in a battle that rallied Florida's anti-Castro community.

But on April 22, federal agents knocked down the door of Lazaro Gonzalez's house and whisked Elian away to his father, waiting in the Washington area.

Lazaro Gonzalez and his daughter Marisleysis Gonzalez had no immediate comment on Elian's return.

``How many more women and children must die before the world hears the cries of the Cuban people?'' their spokesman Armando Gutierrez asked.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was happy that the United Nations was not dragged into the dispute. ``I am relieved that this saga is now over,'' he said during a visit to Hungary on Thursday.

Castro has vowed that Elian's homecoming will not end the massive mobilizations, which will now be aimed at changing U.S. policies — trade sanctions and asylum rules, for example — that it says encourage the kind of illegal migration that led to Elian's plight.

``We're happy he's arrived — but it doesn't change anything,'' Rafael Saldano Roque said Wednesday evening outside Coppelia's, a popular ice cream parlor in Havana.

One of the first announcements Cubans heard Wednesday afternoon on state television and radio told of a rally of 200,000 people planned for Saturday in the southeastern city of Manzanillo.

``Let us always remember that our fight has just begun,'' said the announcement, ``and that a long road still remains before us.''