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.
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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.

Campbell remains in close touch with Elian, who still calls her "mama." She said he is well adjusted despite the trauma and rise to fame. He is not, she said, a propaganda tool for Cuba. "He's a long-distance swimmer. If you can believe it, the boy who watched his mother drown, who barely made it out of the Atlantic, is a long-distance swimmer."

'I guess we lost'

A decade ago, Mercedes Viana Schlapp was 27, marching in front of Elian's Cleveland Park residence, holding homemade signs that read in Spanish, "Juan, don't turn your boy over to Castro."

Now, she bemoans the Castro regime's manipulation of Gonzalez. She points to reports that the boy's birthday has become a national holiday, that Juan Miguel was promoted overnight from a waiter to a state legislator.

"Elian has been robbed of a normal life," she said. "He's just a pawn of the regime."

The photo of 16-year-old Elian brought back memories of the long nights she spent praying and protesting outside the farmhouse on Newark Street.

"That's where I came of age politically," she said. "When I found out Elian was moving to D.C., it was like a call to action."

Like many of the protesters who converged on Cleveland Park then, Schlapp was raised in Miami by Cuban immigrants. Her father was jailed by Castro for six years before fleeing the island. When she left South Florida for Washington in the mid-90s, Schlapp figured she was leaving anti-Castro activism behind. Then Elian arrived.

"We saw this young boy, and we knew that if we lost -- if he was sent back to Cuba -- he would be indoctrinated. And it turns out we were right."

Now Schlapp has three children of her own, including a 6-year-old son.

"I look at him, as old as Elian was then," she said, sighing. "We fought so hard, and, in the end, I guess we lost. But it's the kind of experience that stays with you forever."

Still helping children

The Kopffs, childless and in their mid-60s, have often recounted their day with Elian and their brush with history.

They've continued to devote time to children, throwing parties for them at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in downtown Washington and in Vietnam. Always, there are balloon animals, clown costumes and the smiles of children plagued by traumas that might be eased, albeit briefly, by a few hours of levity. They are children, the Kopffs said, much like Elian in summer 2000.

"Hard to believe it's been 10 years," Gary said. "It's certainly something that we haven't forgotten, and I can't imagine that we ever will."


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