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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Tug-of-War Over Elian Gonzalez




This is the American experience of Elian Gonzalez: Living with relatives in a home under siege from TV crews, swarms of cops and beefy private security guards, and a 24-hour crowd of exiles. Little Havana is at full boil. Elian is right in the middle, spiritually and geographically, in a cream-colored house near the corner of Flagler Street and 22nd Avenue.


Just inside the chain-link fence are two large flags - one American, one Cuban. The exiles are now at war with the governments of both countries.


All the rage and frustration of four decades of exile have been channeled into the legal battle over the future of Elian. It's like a poker game where every player has bet the limit, then thrown in their credit cards, their watches, their cell phones, the shirts off their backs. They've bet their souls.


Cuban President Fidel Castro is in this hand to the bitter end, as are U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. Vice President Al Gore,who has an instinct for the politically profitable move, decided to break with Clinton and Reno and place a side bet.


The case has no obvious solution that is satisfactory to everyone. Castro's plan to send Elian's father, classmates and half of Elian's village to live with Elian in Washington seems rather bizarre and complicated. The Castro plan doesn't inspire confidence that the end to this case is in sight. A simpler plan would be for Castro to resign, and let the United States and Cuba behave like two normal countries.


It is far too late to hope that everyone will calm down and let the bureaucrats decide the outcome. The passion of the Miami exiles cannot be waved away. I was there recently as part of the enormous human cross in Little Havana. From loudspeakers came the prayers of local priests. Everyone shined flashlights into the sky, creating a compelling image for the TV helicopters overhead.


One woman who arrived from Cuba 37 years ago said that if the government tries to return Elian to his father in Cuba, the Miami exiles "are going to go out in the streets and do whatever needs to be done to deal with what I think is a crime.'' She echoed what many people are saying about Miami native Reno, who was once highly popular among Cuban-Americans: "I don't think she should come to Miami right now. She would be in danger.''


There are those who invoke the possibility of "another Waco.'' People are ready to die for Elian. Castro is Hitler. You cannot send a boy back to a place run by a monster. The depth of feeling may seem irrational to many of us, but there's no doubting the sincerity of it.


The stated desire of the Clinton administration has been to see the case handled according to the law, without contamination from politics. A happy ending at this point - a solution that allows Elian to have a normal childhood, somewhere - would almost seem to require a miracle. Elian needs those dolphins to come to the rescue again - the dolphins that, he said, propped him up when he was on the verge of drowning in the Gulf Stream.


The dolphins are just one reason that the exiles call Elian the Miracle Boy. The image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the side of a bank in Little Havana near the house where Elian is living. Then Elian's Miami relatives discovered another image of the Virgin, this time on a mirror.


"The boy has a saint protecting him,'' said Jorge Gonzalez, no relation, as he waited outside Elian's home recently. Mary Rodriguez, a neighbor, had to agree. She says she's completely Americanized, that she came to the States as a small child. But her passion remains with her island. And these miracle stories affect her. "I don't want to sound fanatic,'' she said, "but something gives.''


Just then, the crowd behind the barricades suddenly burst through and surged toward Elian's house, quickly forming a human chain in front of the home. "Eli?n, amigo, Miami est? contigo!'' they chanted. Miami is with you.


People moved through the house, sat on the front steps, and wandered through the yard, but there was no sign of Elian himself. It was, after all, way past his bedtime.


Joel Achenbach writes for The Washington Post, where this comment originally appeared.