With a wave and a grin, Elian goes home

WASHINGTON - With a wave and a shy smile, Elian Gonzalez said goodbye to America Wednesday, ending a seven-month saga that swept the 6-year-old Cuban castaway into a controversy over parental rights and U.S. relations with his communist homeland.

After the Supreme Court declined to intervene, the impish, brown-haired boy who likes Batman, boarded a plane at Washington Dulles International Airport with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, his stepmother and baby half-brother for the three-hour flight to Havana.

''I am extremely happy ... being able to go back to my homeland,'' Gonzalez said through a translator. ''I don't have words, really, to express what I feel.''

He grabbed his little boy's hand and scurried up the steps of the chartered jet. Just 4 hours had passed since the Supreme Court issued its simple 26-word order rejecting an appeal by the boy's Miami relatives, who sought to keep him in America.

''The legal battle is over,'' the father's attorney, Gregory Craig, said.

The Cuban government planned a low-key homecoming and urged its people to allow Elian to resume a normal life in Cuba. ''Now more than ever, our population must behave with the most dignity, serenity and discipline,'' it said in a statement.

Elian's family was huddled around a television set when they heard the news they were going home. ''They were elated, absolutely elated,'' said Christina Fitz, spokeswoman for Youth for Understanding International Exchange - a student exchange group that hosted the Gonzalez family during its last month in the United States.

In a farewell message to the exchange group, 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 in the day, 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 asked rhetorically, ''Of course I do,''

His sentiment was not shared in south Florida. Cuban-Americans, fervently anti-communist, wept, screamed and jeered 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.''

Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez and cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez, who took Elian into their home for five months, 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 ends 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. ''I hope that everyone will ... join me in wishing this family, and this special little boy, well.''

The Elian drama began on Nov. 22 when Elian, his mother and a dozen others left Cuba in a 16-foot motor boat bound for America. The boat sank off the Florida coast, and his mother and 10 others drowned. Elian bobbed on an inner tube in the Atlantic Ocean for two or three days before he was rescued on Thanksgiving Day.

Lazaro Gonzalez was granted temporary custody of the boy. Elian's father demanded his son's return to Cuba.

A tug-of-war ensued.

In Cuba, Elian was an overnight folk hero, a pint-sized symbol of Cuban pride and allegiance to Fidel Castro, the self-described ''daddy of all Cubans.'' Castro 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 Castro'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.

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 will be forever etched in America's conscience. Street riots followed the pre-dawn raid at the Miami relatives' home in Little Havana. Protesters chanted: ''Clinton, coward, Miami is on fire!''

But the pictures of seething demonstrators were quickly replaced by snapshots of an emotional father-son reunion that began with a bear hug in the aisle of an airplane that whisked Elian from Florida to Washington.

Side-by-side, their resemblance was unmistakable. Father and son's eyebrows arch over the same deep-brown eyes; their smiles nearly identical.

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.

In 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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