The grandmothers are tired. Over the past two days, with little sleep, they have left the Cuban coastal town where they have spent virtually all their lives. They have faced walls of cameras and met with senior officials in the capital of the most powerful country in the world. They have taken their first airplane ride and worn their first winter coats. They are cold all the time.

And they are angry.

"Every day that passes is worse," says Mariela Gonzalez, whose son is the father of Elian Gonzalez. "When he talks to his father and to us, he cries," she says of her 6-year-old grandson. "He tells us he is crazy with longing to come back to Cuba."

Raquel Rodriguez, whose only child, Elian's mother, died at sea attempting to reach Florida with the boy, says she doesn't know how President Clinton "can permit this." "It looks like there is not the political courage," she says, to enforce the Immigration and Naturalization Service's ruling that relatives keeping the child in Miami should return him to his Cuban father.

Aboard a chartered aircraft flying back here this afternoon from a meeting in Washington with Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, the grandmothers were quick to say in their native Spanish that they have been treated with great kindness and sympathy since they arrived in this country on Friday to plead for Elian's return.

In their more than hour-long meeting today, Rodriguez told a reporter, Reno "listened to us, she was very friendly. She asked the same things you asked."

"But she didn't say anything" to make them optimistic that Elian would soon be home, she added.

Like everyone else, they said, Reno asked about the relationship between Elian's mother, Elizabet, and the man she lived with, Lazaro Munero. Munero owned the small boat aboard which his parents, Elizabet, Elian and eight other people secretly left Cuba on Nov. 21. Two days after it capsized, only Elian and two adults were left alive.

Mariela Gonzalez's brother-in-law in Miami, Lazaro Gonzalez, has said in federal court papers that Elian deserves political asylum in this country because both Munero and Elizabet were fleeing persecution from the Cuban government--persecution he has said Elian is sure to suffer if he returns.

"That's the biggest lie I ever heard," Rodriguez said. Munero, she said, "was a violent person . . . a crook. He never even had a job. She supported him." Her daughter, she said, "was a militant" supporter of Cuba's communist government. "She was secretary of the Youth Movement in Cardenas," the town where they all live.

Elizabet, Rodriguez said in the vernacular of the Communist Party, "was part of the vanguard . . . these people in Miami talking about her, they didn't even know her."

No outsider can ever really know what goes on inside a family. But Rodriguez said she is convinced that her 30-year-old daughter's departure was a last-minute decision. She had done the biweekly grocery shopping the day before she disappeared, and "in Cuba, you don't spend that kind of money on food if you're going to leave."

Despite their fatigue, the two women become animated, and agitated, when they talk about these things. As the voice of one rises, the other begins talking rapidly until they are interrupting each other in their eagerness to explain. Lazaro Gonzalez, they say, has as much as told them that the matter of Elian's fate is now out of his hands; that the militant anti-Castro, Cuban American "mafia" is running the show in Miami. Elian, they insist, is "nothing more than a checkbook" to Lazaro Gonzalez.

"They have made a business out of the child," Rodriguez said.

The view of Miami from Cuba, at least in the eyes of the Gonzalez family, is no less horrific than the view of Cuba from Miami. Struggling to answer a question many Americans have asked throughout the international tug-of-war over her grandson--why Elian's loving, distraught father hasn't rushed to his side in Miami--Mariela Gonzalez says only that "they would kill him."

"There are lots of good Cubans and lots of good Americans," she explains, "but there are lots of bad Cubans there."

Besides, she says, "I am here, the grandmother. I am here for him."

While they have said in other interviews that they will never go to Miami, Rodriguez seems unsure. "It depends on the circumstances," she says. "I would have to think about it."

The grandmothers say no one from their side has been able to talk to Elian for the past four days. "They must have disconnected the telephone," Rodriguez says. "It just rings and rings."

But as much as seeing Elian, and taking him home, she says, "what we want is to express to the people of the United States that we speak freely. We are not under pressure, and what we say is the truth."

The plane approaches New York, with their National Council of Churches sponsors aboard. NCC, an umbrella group representing mainline U.S. Protestant churches, has a long history of involvement in Cuba--and support for normalized relations between its government and Washington--in association with its counterpart on the island, the Cuban Council of Churches. The sponsors are eager for them to look down at the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the World Trade Center towers.

"That's the Empire State Building," says Oscar Bolioli, coordinator of the NCC's Latin America programs. The women gaze out the window wearily and with some puzzlement. "You know, where King Kong was," he says. They laugh and nod their heads in recognition.

NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar, who says he paid for the chartered plane with his own American Express card, hands over copies of a letter the women gave to Reno. "For us," it says, "the significance of returning Elian to his family will honor his mother's memory, return the family to normality and, more importantly, return Elian to normal life with his father, brother, family, friends at school, his toys, dog and parrot."

While they are grateful for the INS ruling, they say in the letter, "we have felt frustrated over delays. . . . We have only Sunday to see Elian, and we not only want to see him, but we also want to return with him to Cuba."

Later in the afternoon, the Justice Department released a statement from Reno and Meissner. The grandmothers, it said, made "a very compassionate and heartfelt plea to be reunited with their grandson. They asked when Elian could return. . . . We explained that this matter is now in federal court, but that we will seek resolution as expeditiously as possible."

Their flight back to Cuba, the grandmothers say as the plane touches down in New Jersey and they prepare to head toward New York, is booked for Monday.

Following is a translation of the letter Elian Gonzalez's grandmothers gave to Attorney General Janet Reno yesterday:

To Janet Reno:

The retention of Elian in the United States adds to the tragedy of the family over the loss of Elizabeth. For us, the significance of returning Elian to his family will honor his mother's memory, return the family to normality and, more importantly, return Elian to normal life with his father, brother, family, friends at school, his toys, dog and parrot.

We are grateful to you for affirming Juan Miguel's paternity rights, but we have felt frustrated over delays in complying with this right. We ask that you return Elian to his immediate family and not to his distant family, where there had not been a previous relationship. This is the reason for our being here, and we thank you for this interview.

We only have Sunday to see Elian, and we not only want to see him, but we also want to return with him to Cuba.


Mariela Gonzalez

Raquel Rodriguez

Staff writer Stephen Barr contributed to this report.