The door is open to the small house on Cosio Street, a narrow, potholed avenue of crumbling wood and plaster dwellings near the center of this dilapidated town 90 miles east of Havana. Just inside, neighbors are quietly chatting, and a woman is weeping softly into the telephone. Atop a television is a school photo of a smiling, 5-year-old boy dressed in red shorts and a crisp white shirt, knee socks and new sneakers.
The boy is Elian Gonzalez, who on Monday celebrated his sixth birthday away from home, much to his grandmother's sorrow.
"I don't want to do any interviews. I don't want to talk to anyone," she says as she hangs up the telephone. "I just want my grandson back." She begins to sob and leaves the room.
Her husband, Elian's grandfather Juan Gonzalez, apologizes and invites a visitor to sit down. "It's been 13 days," he says. "She can't take any more of this."
Elian's fate seems unlikely to be resolved soon, however. In the two weeks since the boy was found floating in an inner tube off the Miami coast and then released by U.S. authorities into the custody of relatives in Miami, he has become a symbol of everything that divides the two countries and Cubans themselves both here and in southern Florida.
The Cuban government has fully mobilized, organizing daily demonstrations, including one that drew hundreds of thousands to Havana's costal highway today. At the rallies, community leaders shout that the child was kidnapped by his mother, who drowned when their small craft capsized during a clandestine voyage to Florida, and is now being held hostage by the United States, despite demands by his father here to send him home.
Washington seems unsure how to proceed. The U.S. government still has legal control of Elian until an immigration hearing, currently scheduled for Dec. 23. American officials here have asked to meet with his father, also named Juan Gonzalez, so that he can document his paternity and demonstrate his active participation in the boy's upbringing. The Cuban government is not yet sure it wants the father to cooperate. It asked Washington today to clarify whether the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) or the Florida courts ultimately have jurisdiction over the case.
But the Miami relatives, and the politically powerful Cuban exiles who have embraced Elian in the United States, may have the biggest influence over the long term. They say they won't give the boy back, no matter what.
And therein lies the roots of a family tragedy that, at least in this sad household, dwarfs all the government pronouncements and political arguments in both capitals. Grandfather Gonzalez says he hasn't spoken to his five siblings in Miami since they called with the fantastic news that Elian was with them, and he doesn't want to.
He also said his son, Elian's father, was appalled when relatives in Miami offered to give the boy $2 million as an example of how much better his life would be if he stays in the United States. And he said the boy himself has been tugged in different directions.
"One night he told his father, 'I have three bicycles now,' " the grandfather said. "Juan said to him 'Would you trade them for me?' and first he laughed and said 'No.' Then he said 'No, Poppy, I want to be with you.' It's logical. He is just a 6-year-old boy."
Small-statured and slim, grandfather Gonzalez, 53, sits on the edge of a chair, hands clenched in his lap, as he speaks.
"They were divorced about 3 1/2 years ago," he said of his 31-year-old elder son and Elian's mother, Elizabet, but that didn't prevent them from sharing Elian.
Elian was here most weekends, since his mother usually worked then, Gonzalez said, but they didn't worry too much when he didn't show up on Saturday, Nov. 20. On Monday, when Elian's godmother went to pick him up from school, however, the school said he hadn't been there all day.
The godmother went by the mother's house "and there was nobody there," Gonzalez said. "She met a friend of Elizabet in the street, who said, 'She's gone, they're all gone,' " referring to Elizabet, her live-in boyfriend and Elian.
Later, he said, they learned that the three, and 10 others, had left Sunday morning for good. For Florida.
"I can't imagine that she would do something that would give us such pain," he said.
"I called my brother in Miami that Monday. I spoke to my sister, Caridad," Gonzalez said. "We all had good relations with each other--they've been back here to visit" since the siblings fled in the massive Cuban emigration of the early 1960s. "I said, 'I think they left in a small boat. You have to find out if they got there.' She called back and said they had had no news. They were not in Krome," the INS detention camp in Miami.
On Thursday, Thanksgiving Day in the United States, he said the family here heard on a Miami radio station that a boat had sunk, that people were dead and "that one boy had been found" by local fishermen and been taken to a hospital. Again, they called Miami. "I said, 'Take his photo to the hospital and see if it is him.' "
"Imagine how overjoyed we were when we found out it was Elian," Gonzalez said. "He was two days in the water."
Elian's great aunts and uncles picked him up at the hospital on Friday. "When they got home they called us, and put Elian on the phone" with his father. "He didn't talk much. He said 'Poppy, I saw my mother' go into the water and die."
"But then," Gonzalez said, "it started." Elian's father's brothers got on the phone and "began offering things" to his son. "They said, 'We can give [Elian] everything here. You have nothing there.' They said they would put $2 million in the bank for him, and a thousand other things. He was offended. He hung up the phone."
Since then, they have spoken every day with Miami. "But every time, we will talk only to the boy. Last night, I spoke with him, I could hear them in the background telling him, 'Say you're in the hands of the Brothers to the Rescue,' " a militant, anti-Castro exile group.
His son started to gather birth and marriage certificates, and had a friend in Havana contact authorities, Gonzalez said. The Cuban government sent diplomatic notes to Washington asking for Elian's return. First, the Clinton administration said it was a custody matter to be dealt with by Florida courts. Later, seeming to backtrack, Washington said the INS was still in control and would consult with Elian's father.
And that is where things stand. Pointing to a rusted 1956 Rambler, Gonzalez said his son has put the car up for sale to pay for the long distance telephone calls and other expenses. "I'm the grandfather; I have a broken heart. But he is completely broken."
But Gonzalez said his son will not go to Florida to plead for Elian's return. And he only wants to talk to U.S. authorities if they will tell him when Elian will be back.
At Elian's school, the Marcelo Salado Primary School, a sort of shrine has been created. The small, blue table and chair where he sat in his first grade class is there, with his workbooks and a pencil holder on which a photograph of his father, and one of the family together, are pasted. On one table is an array of children's letters and drawings about the missing boy.
Sixth-grader Ulacia Petroya wrote: "William Clinton . . . You have to understand that this six year old boy saw his mother drown. What you are doing is unjust." A drawing shows a small boy surrounded by grown-ups and flashy toys and a bicycle, with tears rolling down his cheeks. In a thought balloon above his head is the school and a group of equally sad-looking children.
Pride of place, however, is given to a sign-in book where local residents are lined up to write their names. On the first page, a large scrawl says: "For the Freedom of Little Elian. Our Country, or Death. Fidel Castro."
Both Elian's mother and father obtained coveted jobs in the government-run tourist business near here, at the beach resort of Veradero. Elizabet cleaned rooms at the Paradiso Hotel, and the father stands guard at the gate of an amusement park and shopping mall. Grandfather Gonzalez is a retired employee of the Interior Ministry. But the grandfather says he hasn't gone to any of the demonstrations and hasn't talked to anybody in the government.
As Juan Gonzalez says goodbye to his guest, he hesitates and then reaches into his pocket for his wallet. He opens a wrinkled sheet of yellow paper on which two names and Florida telephone numbers are written--the fishermen who rescued Elian. "I'd like you to do something for me," he says. "Tell them we appreciate with all our hearts what they did for him. We are so grateful.
"Tell them that here in Cuba, they have a family."