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Two Nations Tug at 5-Year-Old Survivor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Days after he survived a storm at sea, watched his mother drown and spent more than 24 hours alone and adrift in an inner tube, a 5-year-old Cuban boy is being buffeted by an international tempest over his custody.

In Cuba, the father of Elian Gonzalez and government officials have demanded that the boy be returned to his homeland. The father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, has filed a complaint with the United Nations, charging that the boy plucked from the sea near Miami on Thanksgiving morning was kidnapped.

In Miami, Elian has become a sad-eyed poster child for anti-Castro exiles--many of whom are planning to protest the policies of the Cuban leader at the World Trade Organization meeting that begins today in Seattle. Fidel Castro is not planning to attend, having told a Washington congressman in a letter that the U.S. didn’t want him there.

“So often we hear the numbers of the Cuban tragedy,” said Mariela Ferretti, a spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation, on Monday. “But here is an innocent child, with a name, a face and a story.” The group has issued a poster featuring a photograph of the boy, taken as he was being carried on a gurney to the hospital. Over a close-up of Elian--staring vacantly, apparently in shock--are the words: “Another child victim of Fidel Castro.”

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The Cuban foreign ministry, meanwhile, has accused the United States of being responsible for the death of the boy’s mother and nine others because it encourages illegal immigration from the Communist island with a policy that allows Cubans to stay in the U.S. once they reach shore.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin called the Cuban allegations “particularly outrageous and unconscionable.”

“Let’s bear in mind that these people left Cuba because of the terrible economic, social, political, legal and security conditions that have led hundreds of thousands of Cuban citizens to seek to flee their homeland,” Rubin said Monday.

Cuba charged that the U.S. could have prevented the tragedy had the Coast Guard acted to stop the overloaded 17-foot boat in which the boy, his mother, his stepfather and 10 others left Cardenas, on the island’s north coast, Nov. 21. Swamped by heavy seas, the boat overturned last Tuesday, and seven people reportedly drowned almost immediately.

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Six others, including Elian, held onto two inner tubes. Dazed and severely dehydrated, the child was found alone by fishermen about 20 miles north of Miami.

Clinging to the second inner tube, two other survivors were rescued earlier Thursday off Key Biscayne, just south of Miami. The other three were not found.

Cuban authorities said Cuban border guards spotted the boat several hours after the group set sail from Cardenas. “A patrol boat repeatedly urged and tried to persuade them” to turn back, according to a foreign ministry statement broadcast over Radio Reloj, a state-run Havana station.

When the warning was ignored, Cuban officials said, the U.S. Coast Guard was notified.

Lt. Ron LaBrec confirmed that the Coast Guard had received the Cubans’ message and searched unsuccessfully for the vessel.

After one night in Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Fla., Elian was released Friday to join relatives in Miami. They say that he has spoken to his father in Cuba by telephone but that he wants to remain here.

“Beside lots of love, he’s going to have a future, a career, all the things he wouldn’t have there,” said Marisleysis Gonzalez, a cousin of the boy’s father.

In a television interview broadcast Monday in Cuba, the father said that at first he had been happy that his Miami relatives were caring for his son. But then, he said, he came to believe that they were “enriching themselves,” and he demanded that the child be returned to Cuba. “If I have to go and look for him I will,” said Gonzalez, a 31-year-old park worker who has a 2-month-old son with his second wife.

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Rubin said a decision on whether the boy stays in the United States or is returned to Cuba may rest with the federal courts.

In the last few days, scores of reporters, Cuban exile leaders and politicians have stopped by the Little Havana home where Elian is staying, many bringing toys. His relatives report that the boy is adjusting rapidly to his new life and is in good health. He underwent a routine medical checkup on Monday.

But experts suggest that the trauma of the child’s ordeal could be deep. “Kids that age are very egocentric, so he may even think that the loss of his mother is his fault,” said Miami psychiatrist Ana Campo.

“It’s going to take a lot to get over this.”

After a visit with the boy Monday, Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said: “It’s not just a simple case of a little boy; it has other overtones as well.”

Indeed, both the Cuban government and its opponents have placed Elian at the center of “a major symbolic struggle,” said Damian Fernandez, a professor of international relations at Florida International University.

“Now it’s a tug of war, with both sides laying claim to this child for propaganda reasons,” Fernandez said. “It’s a poignant story which touches everybody. And we really don’t know what’s best for him--staying here or going back to his father. But it would be sad if after he struggled so hard to stay alive at sea, the boy was drowned in turmoil here on land.”

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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