7 Months Later, Elian Goes Home To Cuba
Case That Gripped 2 Nations Could Leave Lasting Legacy
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2000; Page A01
HAVANA, Cuba, June 28 –– Seven months after he was rescued from the Atlantic Ocean by passing fishermen, Elian Gonzalez returned home tonight to Cuba. In his wake, the 6-year-old boy left a stunned and angry Cuban American community in Miami and a relationship between this Communist-ruled island and its massive neighbor to the north that seemed to be shifting in a new direction for the first time in decades.
Elian arrived here from Washington in a private plane hours after the Supreme Court rejected a final appeal from Miami relatives seeking to keep him in the United States. Hundreds of schoolchildren, bused to Jose Marti International Airport from the elementary school in his home town of Cardenas, broke into wild applause as Elian was lifted from the plane by his father just before 8 p.m. They waved Cuban flags, loudly sang the Cuban national anthem and chanted, "Elian! Elian!"
Waiting relatives rushed to embrace Elian, his father, stepmother and baby half-brother, all wiping tears from their eyes. The schoolchildren sang as a band played the Cuban national anthem. Passed from the arms of grandparent to grandparent, Elian smiled faintly and seemed somewhat stunned.
Within minutes, the family climbed into a waiting van. Sitting on his father's lap, Elian waved wanly as they were driven away to a government guest house in Havana. An official statement said they would stay there for "a short while" until returning to Cardenas. President Fidel Castro, who has presided over massive rallies demanding Elian's return to Cuba, did not attend the arrival, which officials said they intended to keep low-key.
The Supreme Court, in a sparse 26-word order issued at midday, ended a long legal battle that put the U.S. and Cuban governments on one side and, on the other, the Miami relatives who took care of the boy and fought furiously to prevent his return to what they contended would be a life of deprivation and duress under Castro.
Elian, his father, Juan Miguel, the rest of his family, an entourage of Cuban classmates, a cousin and a teacher left their temporary home at a Cleveland Park estate owned by the Youth for Understanding International Exchange less than three hours after the Supreme Court order, heading for Washington Dulles International Airport and the three-hour flight to Havana.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez gave YFU President Sally Grooms Cowal two Cuban flags, one large and one small, and a bottle of aged Cuban rum. "I am leaving you with two Cuban flags, one big one and a little one, as a token and the first step in the direction of a human and beautiful relationship between our countries," Gonzalez wrote in Spanish in large rounded script in the visitor's book inside the 18th-century farmhouse where the entourage had lived for the past 34 days. "Many thanks for your kindness."
"I would like to thank the North American people for the support they have given us and the U.S. government," he said before departing from Dulles. "I think that this has allowed me to meet the very beautiful and intelligent people in this country, and I hope that in the future this same friendship and this same impression that I have of the U.S. people, that the same thing can become true between both our countries, Cuba and the U.S."
In Miami, spokesmen, friends and attorneys of Elian's Miami relatives deplored the Supreme Court's refusal to take up the appeal and expressed dismay at the boy's future under Castro's Communist government. But Elian's great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, and other members of the Miami family that cared for the boy until federal agents forcibly removed him in April, had no immediate comment.
"How many more women and children must die before the world hears the cries of the Cuban people?" asked Armando Gutierrez, a family spokesman, referring to the death at sea of Elian's mother, Elizabet, at the end of a tragic attempt to flee Cuba for Florida.
His anguish reflected one side of the deeply emotional debate over Elian's fate that raged in the United States, where the public imagination was captured by a little boy with an engaging smile and an uncertain future that was fought out in the courts and in a propaganda battle between Havana and the Cuban American community.
President Clinton, asked at a Washington news conference about Elian's departure, said he wishes the struggle "had unfolded in a less dramatic, less traumatic way for all concerned."
"But I think," Clinton added, "that the most important thing is that his father was adjudged by people who made an honest effort to determine that he was a good father, a loving father, committed to the son's welfare. And we upheld here what I think is a quite important principle, as well as what is clearly the law of the United States."
"I have replayed this in my mind many times," the president said. "I don't know that we had many different options than we perceived, given how the thing developed, but I think the fundamental principle is the right one, and I am glad we did."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company