Amid U.S.-Cuba Storm, Boy Gets a Party


On his 6th birthday Monday, Elian Gonzalez ate cake, tried on new clothes and sifted through a mountain of toys--unaware he was at the center of what Fidel Castro has called a “battle for world opinion” to have the child returned to Cuba.

“It’s hard to contain our nation’s anger,” the Cuban president said, over what he called the kidnapping of the boy who was found drifting Thanksgiving morning in an inner tube about 20 miles north of Miami.

“I can’t remember a single instance of aggression in recent years that seemed so disgusting, cruel, absurd and criminal as this,” Castro said in Havana last weekend. He vowed “to move heaven and earth” to return the boy to Cuba and to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzales, in Cardenas.


It was from Cardenas, on Cuba’s north coast, that Elian and his mother--along with her boyfriend and 10 others--departed Nov. 21 in a 17-foot boat. When the boat was swamped and sank in the Gulf Stream, Elian, his mother and five others hung onto two inner tubes.

Two days later, only Elian and two others were found alive.

U.S. immigration officials placed Elian in the custody of relatives who live in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Since then, he has been lavished with gifts and attention--and transformed into an icon by the fervent anti-Castro exile community here.

In remarks broadcast by Cuban radio and television early Sunday, an angry Castro issued a 72-hour deadline for Elian’s return and threatened to boycott upcoming U.S.-Cuba migration talks.

“There will be millions of people in the streets demanding the boy’s freedom,” Castro said.

Demonstrations already have begun in Havana. As dozens of Cuban guards were added to the security detail around the U.S. Interests Section, several hundred people gathered Sunday, waving flags and chanting for the boy to be returned.

A stage was being erected Monday outside the U.S. Interests Section in preparation for a second night of protest. In Cardenas, mothers and grandmothers rallied in the town square to call for the child’s return, while schoolchildren held a birthday party in absentia for their missing classmate. Dressed in his customary olive fatigues, Castro attended, again lashing out at the United States for its “monstrous crime.”


“This is a good issue for Castro to rally international opinion,” said professor Jaime Suchlicki of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. Suchlicki said Castro was not likely to unleash another refugee crisis by opening the doors to mass migration. But he could close the U.S. Interests Section, or scuttle migration talks--scheduled to begin next week--as a way of derailing the trend toward normalized relations.

In Washington, the State Department on Monday rejected Castro’s demand for the boy’s return, saying the fate of the child should be based on humanitarian concerns. Spokesman James Foley also called on Cuba to assure the safety of U.S. citizens in Havana.

Under the terms of the Cuban Adjustment Act, almost all Cubans who enter the United States illegally are paroled into the community and, after one year, are eligible to apply for the status of permanent residents. According to a 1995 agreement with Cuba, only those migrants apprehended at sea can be repatriated.

In Miami, the child has become a cause celebre, a symbol to many exiles of conditions on the island so economically and politically oppressive that a mother would risk the life of her child to leave. On Sunday, hundreds of gift-bearing Cuban Americans turned out at a park, where Elian rode on a horse, shared the candy from a pinata and blew out the candles on a huge birthday cake.

And on Monday, Cuban-born U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) dropped by to present the boy with a large American flag.

Spencer Eig, an attorney representing Elian’s Miami relatives, on Monday reiterated an invitation to the child’s father to come to Miami and settle the custody dispute in state court--a court that Castro has labeled corrupt. “I feel for Elian’s father,” Eig said. “It’s a tragic situation, and there is no way to make it come out perfectly. But the boy wants to stay here.”



Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington and researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.