Some time ago, a Cuban father learned that his estranged wife had taken off for the United States, along with their 5-year-old son. Enraged at the prospect of his child being raised in the land of Yankee imperialism--by relatives who supported his political enemies--the father wrote to his sister: "I refuse even to think that my son may sleep a single night under the same roof sheltering my most repulsive enemies and receive on his innocent cheeks the kisses of those miserable Judases."

The father later tricked the boy's mother into letting the child visit him in Mexico, then refused to return him; she hired kidnappers and got the boy back, eventually taking him to the United States. After a protracted battle, however, the father prevailed and the child ended up in Havana.

At a moment when emotions are running high over the fate of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, whose mother drowned while trying to escape with him to the United States and whose father wants him back in Cuba, this 45-year-old case is worth noting. That is because the divorced Cuban father was Fidel Castro; the abducted child, his firstborn son, Fidelito.

Some clues to the passion and tenacity of the fight over Elian may lie in Castro's own family history. In some respects, both for Castro and for those exiled Cubans who despise him, the personal is the political--and the four-decade stalemate between Miami and Havana is a huge family feud.

In 1954, Castro's own family mirrored the schism that would eventually divide much of Cuban society. At 28, Castro, a rebel leader seeking to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista, was in prison for a failed attack on the Moncada military garrison a year earlier. His wife of six years, Mirta Diaz-Balart, was from a powerful family with connections to the Batista regime. That summer, Diaz-Balart announced that she wanted a divorce and left for the United States, taking Fidelito with her. (Eventually, all the Diaz-Balarts emigrated to Miami; Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the Republican congressman from Miami who has championed the crusade to keep Elian in the United States, is Mirta Diaz-Balart's nephew.)

From his jail cell, the indomitable Castro instructed his lawyers to fight for custody of his son. He even said he would refuse to consent to a divorce unless Fidelito was returned and enrolled in a school in Havana. In the same letter to his sister Lidia in which he described his in-laws as "Judases," he wrote: "To take this child away from me . . . they would have to kill me. I lose my head when I think about these things." Should the courts rule against him, he vowed, he would "fight until death."

But Castro lost the first battle. By year's end, Diaz-Balart had gotten her divorce and retained custody. Writing to Lidia, Castro fumed, "One day I'll be out of here and I'll get my son and my honor back--even if the earth should be destroyed in the process . . . . If they think they can wear me down and that I'll give up the fight, they're going to find out that . . . I am prepared to reenact the famous Hundred Years' War. And I'll win it."

Released from prison in mid-1955, Castro fled to Mexico with a group of supporters. There he plotted dual strategies: his triumphant return to Cuba and getting custody of his son.

In an emotional plea to Diaz-Balart in the fall of 1956, he asked that Fidelito be allowed to visit him in Mexico. He was about to undertake a perilous expedition, he argued, and it might well be his last chance to see his cherished son. Diaz-Balart relented, accepting his promise "as a gentleman" to return the boy in two weeks' time.

But when the two weeks were over, the boy was not sent back to his mother. Instead, Castro installed him in the walled Mexico City mansion of a wealthy couple who were his allies and patrons. In a Nov. 24 letter to the couple, Castro defended his trickery, saying that he acted not "through resentment of any kind, but only thinking of my son's future."

On the eve of his return to Cuba to launch his offensive against the Batista regime, he wrote what amounted to a will--bequeathing his son, in the event of his death, not to Diaz-Balart but to the Mexico City couple. The issues were not personal, he claimed, but political: "Because my wife has proven to be incapable of breaking away from the influence of her family, my son could be educated with the detestable ideas that I now fight . . . I am leaving him with those who can give him a better education, to a good and generous couple who have been, as well, our best friends in exile . . . . And I leave my son also to Mexico, to grow and be educated here in this free and hospitable land . . . . He should not return to Cuba until it is free or he can fight for its freedom."

With that, Castro and his rebel barbudos sailed back to Cuba on the legendary Granma.

A week later, a distraught Diaz-Balart flew to Mexico City, where her politically connected family, with the help of the Cuban Embassy, retained three professionals to recapture her son. The armed men followed Fidel's sisters, Emma and Lidia, as they strolled through Chapultepec Park with Fidelito. On their way home, the men cut off the Castro car and snatched the boy. After Emma complained to the police, the Cuban foreign minister responded coolly that "the child is with his mother, which excludes the possibility of a kidnapping."

Diaz-Balart, who had remarried the son of a Cuban diplomat, then took Fidelito to New York, where he attended school in Queens for almost a year.

But Diaz-Balart's victory was short-lived. In January 1959, when Castro seized control of his country, he promptly took charge of his son as well. He convinced Diaz-Balart to return Fidelito to Havana, where both appeared in a February 1959 television interview with Edward R. Murrow on "Person to Person." On camera, Castro--speaking English--summoned his son, and the fair-haired Fidelito, clutching a puppy and looking not unlike Beaver Cleaver, rushed to kiss his adoring father. "Hello, Fidel Junior," boomed Murrow. "That's a very good-looking puppy you have. Is he yours?" Speaking English as fluently as an American kid on a playground, Fidelito grinned and responded, "No--someone gave it to my father as a present!"

(On Friday in Miami, Elian Gonzalez was playing with a new black Labrador puppy--a gift from Rep. Diaz-Balart.)

Later Fidelito would be sent to the Soviet Union where he studied to be a physicist and married a Russian. He went on to become the head of Cuba's nuclear power program. Today, a businessman, he lives with his second wife and three children in Havana. By all reports, he is said to be a doting father. Diaz-Balart lives in Spain, but visits her son and his family often in Havana. She has never spoken publicly about her former husband, but according to close friends, their relationship is said to be amicable.

Castro casts himself as the patriarch not only of his family, but of his country. In a 1993 interview, I asked him what he regarded as his greatest mistake, and he responded, "We may have been guilty of excessive paternalism." But as students of exile politics well know, the most tragic casualty of the Castro years has been the Cuban family. Like the American Civil War, the Cuban Revolution ripped apart thousands of families--with children pitted against parents, brothers against sisters. Castro's own family has been no exception.

Another one of Castro's sisters, Juanita, has long lived in Miami, where she has been a vocal critic of her brother's policies. His illegitimate and ignored daughter, Alina Fernandez, also fled the island and periodically lashes out at her father. It appears that Castro has done far better with his sons, including the five he has raised with his wife of 35 years, Dalia Soto del Valle, who hails from the port city of Trinidad and rarely appears in public with him--and who has seen her own extended family torn along the same ideological divide.

Ironically, a primary source of income for Cuba comes from the estimated $1 billion sent annually to the island from the million-plus Cuban exiles living in the United States. Many are the same people who demonstrate in the streets of Miami ranting against the Castro government and against any aid to Cuba--that is, with the exception of their own families.

And many are the same people who are vehemently protesting the Immigration and Naturalization Service decision to send Elian Gonzalez back to his father and four grandparents--yet another Cuban family in which the political and the personal have become irrevocably entwined.

Ann Louise Bardach, visiting professor of international journalism at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has interviewed Fidel Castro twice and written extensively on Cuba. This article expands on an earlier version that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.