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Elian Battle Won, Castro Looks to a Bigger Fight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Elian Gonzalez awoke in his fatherland Thursday for the first time in seven months, his towering portrait was almost gone--meticulously removed from billboards and byways where the 6-year-old’s plaintive face had been omnipresent during Cuba’s crusade for his return.

Gone too were the massive crowds that had thronged the new seaside Dignity Plaza opposite the U.S. diplomatic mission here, the official lightning rod for Cuba’s “Return Elian” campaign.

And gone was Elian himself, sequestered from public view in a walled seaside villa where he will remain for several weeks, on a barricaded Havana street now off limits to all but family, teachers and a few other people.

But as the day wore on, it was clear that only the medium was gone. The message remained the same. And Cuban President Fidel Castro’s quick alteration of the political landscape here gave evidence that, for the Communist leader, Elian was merely a transient yet powerful symbol in a larger battle that, as the government put it, “has only just begun.”

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In place of Elian, billboards now declare, “Down With the Cuban Adjustment Act,” a reference to the 1966 U.S. law that permits Cuban rafters who reach U.S. soil illegally to stay. Castro says the law drives the illegal journeys such as the one that brought Elian to Florida’s shores. The November voyage killed Elian’s mother and 10 others along the way, leaving the boy at the center of a conflict between two nations and between his Miami relatives and Cuban father.

Although Cuba’s official--and only--newspapers and television declared, “Hallelujah!” “Joy Returned” and “Justice Triumphs,” they tempered their reaction with grim reminders of the deeper issues the boy has come to symbolize here.

“With Elian, we have saved a marvelous child, but thousands of innocent creatures, younger and older than Elian, equally adorable, run the risk of being shipwrecked, dying or suffering horrible tragedies such as what Elian suffered,” declared the Communist Party daily Granma.

And the two-hour Elian “Round Table” show on state television, which has preempted weekday after-school cartoons for months and become a powerful vehicle for the island’s Communist leadership, went on the air as always Thursday, attacking an array of U.S. laws and policies and the anti-Castro Cuban American lobby in Miami--all part of a post-Elian strategy outlined months ago.

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The gray-bearded Cuban leader, whose paternal presence has been as ubiquitous as Elian’s portrait throughout the well-orchestrated campaign, was not in his usual place in the studio audience Thursday for what had become his favorite show.

Castro had pledged that neither he nor his nation would “gloat” when the boy came home. The Cuban leader had consistently condemned the “circus atmosphere” outside the home of Elian’s relatives during the boy’s five-month stay in Miami and promised not to re-create it in Cuba.

Castro was notably absent on the tarmac of Jose Marti International Airport on Wednesday evening when Elian arrived, flying in from Washington on a jet that also carried the boy’s father, stepmother, half brother and others. The Cuban leader is not expected to make his first public comments until Saturday--at the first mass rally since Elian’s return, scheduled to be held in the southeastern city of Manzanillo.

But the Cuban president and his ruling inner circle flagged their post-Elian strategy months ago, in the nationally televised “Baragua Oath” during a “Free Elian” rally Feb. 19, which was held in the city for which the declaration is named.

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The oath declares war on an array of U.S. policies and rules, ranging from the 1966 law, which presumes all Cubans reaching America are political refugees, to the presence of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba’s southeastern shore to the four-decade U.S. economic embargo of the island.

The document names as the island’s enemies the Cuban American “mafia” in Miami and “the extreme right in the U.S. Congress.” It also criticizes the “impotence” of the Clinton administration. It attacks the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which punishes companies from third countries that do business with Cuba. And it maps out a long-term battle plan that has eclipsed the boy himself.

“The battle to get our kidnapped child back has become from the first episode a much more prolonged struggle,” the oath declared. “From the beginning, it was explained to our people: The struggle will be long.”

Ever since, the government’s mass rallies have blended “Free Elian” posters with far more esoteric slogans condemning laws that many of Cuba’s 10 million people blame for dividing hundreds of thousands of families.

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The Cuban American lobby in Miami, which still supports the Cuban Adjustment Act, blames Castro’s repressive policies for those family divisions and for the human flight from the Communist-run island.

Judging by the mood on the streets here in the Cuban capital, where joy over Elian’s return appeared universal Thursday, it was unclear whether popular support for the sustained campaign will equal that of the visceral crusade for the boy’s return.

“Whew!” replied a former teacher here when asked his reaction to Elian’s return. Rolling his eyes and wiping his forehead, he added: “It was more than enough for all of us. We’re exhausted. But what a happy day this is.”

Reminded that his government has declared that “the battle has just begun,” he smiled, sat down and replied, “Ask me tomorrow.”

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U.S. PLANS POLICY REVIEW

The U.S. said it will review its immigration policies as a result of Elian Gonzalez’s ordeal. A8


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