For Elian Gonzalez, a Hero's Status--but a Normal Life?

WASHINGTON POST

The most famous 8-year-old boy in the world lives on a busy street in a pale-green stucco house, nice by Cuban standards but hardly luxurious. He attends the neighborhood school, and in the afternoon he can be seen playing soccer and tag with friends in his little frontyard. Occasionally someone will walk past wearing a T-shirt with his picture on it. Out on the sidewalk, a policeman stands watch day and night.

It's been more than a year and a half since Elian Gonzalez came home. This is what he came home to--a life that is both more private and more public than most of us could imagine.

The story of Elian is the stuff of myth. Shipwrecked and left motherless in a desperate voyage of flight. Kept from drowning, some people believe, by heaven-sent dolphins. Rescued from the sea by the provident hands of a fisherman. Adopted by exiles as a symbol of hope and freedom. Taken to Disney World. Brought out each afternoon to be photographed at play. Claimed by his father, who braved peril to come take him home. Fought over in the courts by lawyers and in the streets by multitudes. Taken at gunpoint by commandos, reunited with the father and finally flown home to a hero's welcome.

That's a lot to go through before your seventh birthday.

Fidel Castro, who turned Elian into the symbolic son of the entire nation, vowed that when the boy got back to Cuba, he would resume a normal life. The Cuban exiles in Miami predicted Elian would be exploited to help prolong Castro's rule.

Who was right?

Cardenas is about a three-hour drive from Havana. To get there, you head east past grim Soviet-style apartment complexes and cheery little beach resorts, past rolling green countryside, past one of Cuba's few oil fields, past the city of Matanzas with its commodious deep-water port, where ships too big to squeeze into the Havana harbor come to call.

Soon after Matanzas there is a tollbooth, where motorists must pay two U.S. dollars, a princely sum by Cuban standards. Think of it as a kind of departure tax because that booth is the gateway to Varadero, which seems like another country.

Varadero is Cuba's preeminent beach resort, a 20-mile spit of scrubland and pristine beach jutting into the Florida Straits. It is by far the most prosperous-looking place on the island.

The streets are broad and well paved, the houses and apartments look tidy, the people look particularly well fed and well dressed.

There is an 18-hole golf course, one of only a couple in the whole of Cuba. There are fine restaurants that serve fresh lobster. And the beach is lined with big Cancun-style luxury hotels--normally full of Canadian, Spanish, Italian and German tourists but rather empty since Sept. 11.

Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, works in Varadero, as did his mother, Elisabeth Brotons, who perished trying to take her son to America. She was a hotel maid and he was an admissions booth attendant, but both were part of the developing new Cuban elite: Those who work in jobs where they receive tips from foreigners in dollars. In a country where the average state salary (in Cuban pesos) equals about $15 a month, a waiter in a hotel restaurant is a wealthy man.

Just a few miles down the highway lies Cardenas, and suddenly you're back in Cuba. It's a fairly prosperous little town, given that so many of its residents work in Varadero.

A rental car cruising the streets of Cardenas is hair-on-fire conspicuous and can only be looking for one thing. So people start to answer before you even get the question out: "Where's Elian's house?"

The first set of directions are a bum steer, leading to Elian's grandparents' home near the port, where the whole family used to live.

The second sends you straight to the little pale-green house, or pretty close--actually, to a similar pale-green house two doors away, where the lady of the house almost has a conniption at the arrival of two foreigners, one carrying a notebook and the other laden with cameras.

She is torn between the instinct to show good manners and the fervent desire that this not be happening to her.

"Please have a seat," she says. Then, as soon as we are seated: "I'm afraid you have the wrong house. Please come with me."

She takes us to the right house, where the polite policeman stands, and after telling him five different ways that she does not know us, has never seen us before and certainly will never see us again, scurries back home and shuts the door.

The policeman asks if we have come to see Juan Miguel, and we say yes. He explains that the family is not home at the moment, but perhaps we could come back in a while. He is as gracious as he can be, but also someone around whom you would not want to make sudden moves.

Well, then, to pass some time. To the museum. Elian's museum.

After Elian returned to Cardenas, the Cuban government took a big former firehouse, spruced it up with a coat of ocher paint, gutted the inside and turned it into a museum commemorating the victorious fight to bring the boy home to Cuba. Officially it is called the Museum of the Battle of Ideas, but everyone knows it as "the Elian Museum."

The chief attraction comes first: a statue titled "Dignity," by a sculptor named Andres Gonzalez.

It is a modernistic but clearly figurative statue of Elian, gazing hopefully into the future. The medium is bronze but the surface is mottled, as if it were made of clay. Elian is recognizable as himself, not as some generic Cuban boy. In one fist he holds a toy Superman. He is supported not by the earth or any solid surface but by a sea of hands, representing the Cuban people. One of the hands is holding a Cuban flag.

The rest of the museum exhibits are artifacts from the struggle: The Cuban flag that flew at his grandparents' house in Cardenas during the long months Elian was in the United States. The T-shirt worn by one of the fishermen who rescued him. E-mails and letters blasting the "Miami Mafia" and demanding Elian's return. A picture of Elian at Disney World, wearing mouse ears. A picture of a demonstration on his behalf at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, which drew 1 million people. A mock-up of the open-air stage that Castro built outside the American Interests Section in Havana--the closest thing to an American Embassy--so he could hold Elian demonstrations where the Americans would have to see and hear them.

There are the school notebooks kept by Elian's classmates who were brought to the United States to keep him company while he awaited permission to go home.

A teacher came, too, to give the kids the same class work they would have been receiving in Cardenas.

One of the notebooks is open to a page where the youngster wrote: "Every Cuban is a soldier."

There are relief busts of Cuba's great historical heroes, the founding fathers of independence and the revolution. And there is a book of photos from the museum's opening, with a personal note from Castro: "The battle of ideas cannot be lost and will not be lost."

Actually, this is one of two museums dedicated to Elian. The other, more of a shrine, has been set up in Miami, in the little house where Elian lived with the distant cousins and uncles who will forever be known as the Miami Relatives.

"Would you be so kind as to come with me, please?"

The policeman stationed in front of Elian's house, more politely than ever, gently guides us away from the house, toward a man standing on the corner.

The man introduces himself as a local official of the Cuban Communist Party.

"We're so happy that you have come to Cardenas," he says. "We understand that you would like to talk with Juan Miguel, and of course that would be fine, but it would be impossible without specific prior approval from Havana."

Officials in Havana had said they had no objection at all, that it was up to Juan Miguel. Could we ask him?

"Yes, of course. But only with approval from Havana."

This was no surprise. The Cuban government has kept journalists away from the family, and the truth is that this is a good thing.

Cubans in general dote on their children, and Elian, after all, is a child. It is probably impossible for him to lead an entirely "normal" life, whatever that is, but the government says it is determined to try to give him the chance. A constant stream of foreign journalists coming to visit would be counterproductive. He's more than done his bit to provide fuel for the global media machine. He's earned the right to play in his front yard without being photographed.

"Come back to Cardenas any time," the party man says. "Have you seen the museum?"

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