Correction to This Article
This article about the 10th anniversary of the custody fight over young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez incorrectly described Mercedes Viana Schlapp, who protested at the time against sending the boy back to Cuba, as having three children, including a 6-year-old son. She has four children, all daughters.

A decade after dispute, Elian Gonzalez still affects those he met in D.C. area

Elian Gonzalez, who was rescued in waters off the Florida coast after his mother drowned while fleeing Cuba, became the center of an international custody battle in 2000. Despite objections from relatives in Miami, the Supreme Court ruled that the 5-year-old be returned to his father in Cuba. The lives that intersected in the dispute remain forever changed.
By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010

In their Cleveland Park living room, Gary and Judy Kopff leaf through a mountain of snapshots taken 10 years ago, looking for a close-up of a Cuban boy sitting on a life-size stuffed llama. When she finds the photo, Judy coos at 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez. The boy stares back at the camera, head cocked.

Until recently, it was the image that the Kopffs most closely associated with their one-time party guest, the sole survivor of a raft full of refugees that sank off the coast of Florida in November 1999. Then, last month, the Cuban government released a photo of Elian, 16, wearing a Young Communist uniform.

The custody battle over him, which became an international controversy, ended abruptly in Washington with a Supreme Court decision, a rushed trip to the airport and a plane to Havana on June 28, 2000. Just like that, the boy, whose face had been ubiquitous and whose gap-toothed smile had stretched across T-shirts and TV screens in Cuba and the United States, disappeared.

But for many people in the Washington area whose lives intersected with Elian's, the impact of the boy's two-month relocation to the city would ripple through the next decade -- spurring friendly meetings between Fidel Castro and a former American diplomat, transforming a minister from Ohio into a Cuban celebrity and dragging Cuban Americans into the center of a political fracas.

The Kopffs' encounter with Elian lasted only an afternoon, during a party they hosted to welcome him to their neighborhood and counter the protests outside their Cleveland Park residence. There were U.S. marshals in every room, Cuban diplomats huddled around the dining room table and a half-dozen first-graders from a small city east of Havana watching the "Lion King" in Spanish upstairs.

Judy Kopff made balloon animals for the children, placing a blowup crown atop Elian's head. He and the other children seemed to enjoy the Kopffs' menagerie of 16 giant stuffed animals and six cats, which still dominate their home.

"Imagine that," Judy Kopff tells visitors. "Elian sat on that llama, right there, loving every minute of it."

Changing impressions

The most prominent photograph in Sally Cowal's office: Castro with his arm around her when she was in her mid-50s. The photo gets a lot of attention, not just because Castro, in his green military uniform, towers over Cowal, his beard sweeping across her forehead, but because the woman he is embracing was once the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin America.

How did a retired American diplomat find her way into Castro's favor? The story starts in a Washington dog park, where Cowal met Gregory Craig, the attorney for Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father.

At Craig's urging, Cowal, then president of Youth for Understanding, a nonprofit group that sets up international student exchanges, arranged for Elian to stay at the organization's headquarters in Cleveland Park while the boy's fate was being hashed out in the courts. (The expansive farmhouse, part of the historic Rosedale estate, has since been subdivided into condominiums.)

She and Juan Miguel ate lunch together nearly every day for six weeks, trading questions about politics and culture, peeking outside occasionally to find Elian riding Cowal's sheepdog around the yard. Representatives of the Cuban Interests Section dropped by, endowing the meetings with the air of an informal summit.

"Even after 30 years in the State Department, I'd never had this kind of exposure to the Cuba issue," she said. "Impressions on both sides were changing."

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