In her gift shop on Calle Ocho, the main thoroughfare of Little Havana, Caridad Alvarez has presided over many an argument about the future of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez--the small Cuban refugee at the center of an international custody case with no easy answers. It is clear where Alvarez stands.

"There is hunger in Cuba. There is not enough medicine. What about his education?" said Alvarez, who fled the communist regime of Fidel Castro 34 years ago. "If we send the child back to Cuba, we are letting Castro have what he wants, and Castro is a very evil man."

In this city's thriving and vocal Cuban exile community, the rising controversy over Elian's fate has pitted hatred for Castro against love of family.

Even Alvarez concedes that she understands why Elian's father in Cuba, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, would want to get the boy back. "But he should want him to grow up here--that's what his mother died for," she said after a pause.

Elian's mother and 10 others drowned last month when their boat capsized as they attempted to flee Cuba by crossing the Florida Straits. The boy survived in an inner tube for two days until he was discovered by fishermen. That perhaps should have been enough drama in his young life, but more quickly followed when relatives in Miami asserted that he should remain in the United States with them, while his father in Cardenas, Cuba, demanded his return.

The boy's case is likely to dominate biannual migration talks between the two countries that are set to begin on Monday.

While the focus of the talks is likely to be on Cuba's claims over the boy, the American negotiators have grievances of their own. U.S. sources said their delegation planned to raise a controversial, recent measure by Havana to deny Cuban medical personnel visa eligibility until they have completed a certain number of years' work here. The measure is highly unpopular among Cuban medical staff.

U.S. authorities picked up another 24 Cuban migrants today who swam ashore in the Florida Keys, apparently after being dropped in the water by smugglers who brought them from Cuba.

Castro has mobilized mass demonstrations in Havana to protest the U.S. handling of Elian's case. Friday night, more than 2 million people marched to demand his return in the largest demonstrations on the communist island since Castro came to power 41 years ago. There have been five consecutive days of demonstrations in front of the building that houses the U.S. diplomatic interests section.

In contrast, President Clinton, who visited South Florida today, has tried to keep a low profile on the issue, saying he defers to the legal custody process.

So far, demonstrations in Miami have been relatively minimal, although protesters greeted Clinton tonight as he arrived at a political fund-raiser at the Biltmore Hotel with pleas that Elian be allowed to stay here.

Awaiting Clinton's arrival, a small group of protesters yelled through bullhorns, "Elian, we are with you. The people are with you."

They waved signs that said, "We want Elian in the USA," "Freedom for Cuba," and "Down with Tyranny."

Luis Gonzalez, no relation to Elian, dressed in camouflage pants, a black T-shirt and black beret, a member of the militant anti-Castro group Commandos F-4. He said he had come "to protest for the liberation of Elian, to tell Clinton that Elian is a baby and he should not go to Cuba, and for Clinton to tell the whole family to come here."

More pressure was in the offing.

Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the nation's largest Cuban exile group, planned to give Clinton a letter from Elian's Miami relatives today, urging him to meet the child. And, the Miami Herald reported, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas hoped to ask Clinton to bring the boy's father from Cuba as immigration officials and others decide the custody fight.

"The culprit here is Castro and his regime and his thugs--the mother made the ultimate custody decision," said Mas Santos at a Friday news conference to announce that Elian's attorneys are seeking political asylum for the boy. "It's important for Fidel Castro to realize the family [in Miami] will not be intimidated by the mobs [in Cuba]."

The political excitement over the boy's case--and the all-too-sad human dimensions--have given South Florida's vast exile community a fresh rallying cause in their loathing of the Castro government. Spanish-language radio stations here have hosted daily debates about the case, and people speak of the timid, brown-eyed boy as if they have a personal stake in his life.

"The traditional exile community here has, by and large, but not solidly and completely, taken the position that they want the kid to stay," said Max Castro, no relation to the Cuban leader, a senior research associate at the University of Miami's North-South Center. "The militant groups? Definitely. But the community is not monolithic."

He said it is easy to see why the case exploded into such a huge, complex dispute. "Since the temperature between Cuba and the United States is always hot," he said, "anything can bring it to a boil."

Because both international and U.S. law support the return of the boy to his father, Max Castro said he "would not bet on him staying here." But for Alvarez, at her shop on Calle Ocho, with her memories and her fears, that is unthinkable.

"Never!" she said, about the thought of Elian returning to Cuba. "He should never go back there."

Special correspondent Catharine Skipp and Reuters contributed to this report.

CAPTION: A Cuban boy plays soccer in front of a billboard near the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. Millions of citizens have protested for the return of another boy, Elian Gonzalez, from Miami.

CAPTION: Miami police officer Ralph Toirac gives Elian Gonzalez a ride outside the home where the Cuban boy has been staying since his mother died at sea.