By ANITA SNOW – Associated Press – June 28, 2000

HAVANA (AP) _ Seven months after he was cast adrift in the Florida Straits, Elian Gonzalez returned to his native Cuba Wednesday evening, bringing to a close an international custody battle that stirred Cold War passions.

After a three-hour journey from Washington, Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, lifted the 6-year-old boy down the plane’s staircase to the tarmac in Havana, where they were embraced by Elian’s tearful grandmothers and other relatives.

“Elian! Elian! Elian!” chanted about 800 children from the first-grader’s elementary school, waving small red, white and blue Cuban flags in the celebration at the small Jose Marti Airport. They sang along as a military band struck up Cuba’s national anthem.

The return of the impish, brown-haired boy who loved Batman ended the seven-month international custody dispute between his father, who sought to bring him home, and his relatives in Miami, who fought to keep him in the United States. Elian’s father was freed to bring him home after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene.

President Fidel Castro did not attend the homecoming ceremony. He had promised not to hold boastful demonstrations upon Elian’s return to the communist island, and his government has asked the Cuban public not to take to the streets to celebrate. The highest Cuban official on hand was National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, Castro’s point man in the Elian case.

State television broadcast the arrival of the two planes carrying Elian, his father, step mother and baby half brother along with other Cubans.

On the airport tarmac, the smiling Elian was carried and passed from relative to relative who kissed and hugged him.

The family drove off in a small procession of cars to an undisclosed location for a private reunion, then were heading to a specially prepared boarding school in Havana to spend the night.

The government said in a statement that Elian is expected to stay at the boarding school for two to three weeks with his family and classmates from his hometown of Cardenas.

The boy’s teachers must “undertake the masterful work of making him a model child,” said the statement, without elaborating.

Before boarding the plane at Washington Dulles International Airport, Elian’s father told reporters through a translator, “I am extremely happy … being able to go back to my homeland. I don’t have words, really, to express what I feel.”

He grabbed his little boy’s hand and led him up the steps of the chartered jet, where Elian said goodbye to America with a wave and a shy smile.

“The legal battle is over,” the father’s attorney, Gregory Craig, said, after the Supreme Court issued its simple 26-word order rejecting an appeal by the boy’s Miami relatives.

In a farewell message to the student exchange group that hosted the family during its last month in the United States, Elian’s father wrote: “I am leaving you with two Cuban flags _ one big one and one little one as a token and the first step in the direction of a human and beautiful relationship between our two countries.”

At a White House news conference earlier, President Clinton was asked whether he had second thoughts about returning Elian to communist Cuba. “Well, if he and his father decided they wanted to stay here, it would be fine with me,” the president said.

“Do I wish it had unfolded in a less dramatic, less traumatic way for all concerned?” he said. “Of course I do,”

Elian seized Americans’ attention from the moment he was rescued Thanksgiving Day by two fishermen off the Florida coast, clinging to an inner-tube. He had been floating for two days after the boat that had been taking him on the perilous, 90-mile voyage from Cuba to the United States sank, drowning his mother, her boyfriend and nine others.

For the next five months he stayed in a white stucco house in Miami’s Little Havana with his father’s uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who was granted temporary custody and fought to keep him in a fierce battle that rallied the anti-Castro community in Florida.

But the U.S. government stepped in on April 22, when at 5:15 a.m., 151 federal agents charged into Little Havana, knocked down the door of Lazaro’s house with a battering ram, swarmed through the house, pushed aside the screaming relatives and whisked Elian away to his father, waiting in the Washington area.

In their wake, they left a seething Cuban-American community. On Wednesday, Miami’s Cubans — fervently anti-communist — wept at the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Watching Elian’s plane take off on television, their sobs and sniffles gave way to keening wails and angry shouts of disbelief. Some jeered the U.S. government, some called for God’s help and others collapsed with emotion.

“He’s not going back, he’s not going back,” Anais Acuna said, praying with a rosary in her hand.

Estrella Martinez wept, “Oh my God, my God we love him.”

Lazaro Gonzalez and his daughter Marisleysis Gonzalez had no immediate comment.

But a parade of attorneys and activists, speaking for the Miami family, lamented Elian’s +return+ to the same place that his mother and so many others risked their lives to flee.

Family spokesman Armando Gutierrez cited human rights abuses in Cuba and asked, “How many more women and children must die before the world hears the cries of the Cuban people?”

“Elian’s mother brought him to this great country seeking the promises of our Statue of Liberty,” he said. “She and her son were among the huddled masses yearning … to be free.”

The Supreme Court’s order ended Elian’s life in limbo, said Attorney General Janet Reno, head of the Justice Department, which through June 11 had spent $1.8 million on the case. “All involved have had an opportunity to make their case — all the way to the highest court in the land,” she said.

The tug-of-war over Elian stirred passions on both sides of the Florida Straits.

In Cuba, Elian was an overnight folk hero, a pint-sized symbol of Cuban pride and allegiance to Castro, who orchestrated protests, one of them drawing 2 million chanting demonstrators, the largest in Castro’s 41-year rule.

In America, the Miami relatives turned him into a symbol of Cuban-Americans’ long struggle against Castro’s hard-line government.

Ironically, both +Cuba+’s communist regime and the U.S. government, arch enemies during the Cold War, were on the same side of the Gonzalez drama. Both wanted Elian to live in Cuba with his father. And the case helped nudge the House on Tuesday to cut a deal to ease the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba for the first time in four decades.

Castro’s government has vowed that Elian’s homecoming will not end its massive mobilizations, which will now be aimed at changing U.S. policies that it says encourage the kind of illegal migration that led to Elian’s plight.

Albeit weary of media coverage of his plight, Americans embraced Elian, who celebrated his sixth birthday in America and learned to ride a two-wheeler. They watched him wave a miniature Star-Spangled Banner for television cameras and visit Disneyworld.

Americans watched, too, as he wagged a finger and exclaimed, in a videotaped message to his father: “I do not want to go to Cuba.”

The photo of a frightened little boy being grabbed by a Border Patrol agent holding an MP-5 submachine gun in the raid on the Miami house will be etched in America’s conscience.

But that picture was quickly followed by snapshots of the bear hug between father and son in an emotional reunion.

The ordeal, though, was not yet over.

In June, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled for Elian’s father, yet ordered the boy to remain in the United States pending appeal. The Miami relatives appealed to the Supreme Court.

When the high court declined to hear the case, Elian was free at last.

n the eyes of many Cuban-Americans, though, Elian’s real freedom ends when he steps back onto Cuban soil and begins to wave another red-white-and-blue flag _ the one representing Castro’s Cuba.

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