- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2000

Elian Gonzalez flew home aboard a chartered jet to a hero's welcome in Havana yesterday, leaving behind saddened Miami relatives and an embittered Cuban-American community that had fought for seven months to keep him in the United States.
The Supreme Court cleared the way for Elian's return to Cuba with his father by rejecting a final plea from members of the boy's Miami family. The relatives had vowed that he never would go back to the communist regime they despised.
"I am very grateful for the support I have received," Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, said in Spanish at Washington Dulles International Airport.
"I am extremely happy to be going back to my homeland, and I don't have words to express how happy I feel," he said before boarding the jet with 6-year-old Elian, his wife, their infant child and Elian's Cuban classmates who had traveled to Washington seeking the boy's return.
The plane landed in Havana shortly before 8 p.m., concluding a custody battle and partisan political debate that was fought with the passions of a Cold War confrontation. The struggle began when Elian was rescued Thanksgiving Day from the seas off Florida after his mother and 10 others died when their boat sank as they fled to the United States.
Elian's return marked a victory for Cuban President Fidel Castro, who made the boy an icon of his revolution.
For the boy's relatives in Miami, it marked a final and bitter defeat.
Elian, who became a symbol of 40 years of enmity between Cuba's Marxist regime and nearly 1 million Cuban-Americans, often seemed oblivious to the fuss.
Millions of Americans, however, were touched by images of the boy playing in the yard of the Miami relatives, shrieking while being seized by armed U.S. agents and then smiling in the arms of his Cuban father after their reunion.
The drama ended with a brief statement from the Supreme Court.
"The application for stay presented to Justice [Anthony M.] Kennedy and by him referred to the court is denied," the high court said.
With the court refusing to intervene, a legal injunction keeping Elian in the United States expired at 4 p.m. and at 4:31, the private jet carrying Elian back to Cuba took off.
Moments earlier, his father had lugged the boy onto the airplane and punched his fist in the air in a gesture of victory.
In a final photo op, Elian turned and waved goodbye. His stepmother, Nersy, and half brother, Hianny, also boarded the plane for the three-hour flight.
Hours earlier, Youth for Understanding, the nonprofit group that played host to Elian and his family at its Northwest Washington estate, gave Elian four going-away gifts: a globe, a pencil, an American flag and a book of photographs of the District's monuments and other scenic sites.
Outside the estate's gate on Newark Street NW, about a half-dozen demonstrators kept a calm vigil throughout the day, holding signs that read: "Shame," "Clinton: How could you?" and "Pray for Elian."
Elian's mother, her boyfriend and nine others perished when their boat sank. The boy and two other passengers were the only survivors. His great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez of Miami, won temporary custody of Elian.
The boy stayed with his Miami relatives until federal agents seized him at gunpoint in a pre-dawn raid ordered April 22 by Attorney General Janet Reno and turned him over to his father in Washington.
The Clinton administration opposed efforts to deny Juan Miguel Gonzalez custody of his son. President Clinton yesterday wished the boy well.
Asked for his thoughts at a White House news conference, Mr. Clinton said: "If he and his father decided they wanted to stay here, it would be fine with me."
Juan Miguel Gonzalez was determined to be "a good father, a loving father, committed to the son's welfare," the president said. "And we upheld here what I think is a quite important principle, as well as what is clearly the law of the United States. Do I wish it had unfolded in a less dramatic, less traumatic way for all concerned? Of course I do."
Miss Reno said she was "very pleased that the Supreme Court declined to review the case."
"All involved have had an opportunity to make their case all the way to the highest court in the land. I hope that everyone will accept the Supreme Court's decision and join me in wishing this family, and this special little boy, well," she said.
In Miami, Elian's relatives struggled to cope with the return to Cuba of the child they had sought to raise in "freedom."
"How many more women and children must die before the world hears the cries of the Cuban people?" family spokesman Armando Gutierrez asked.
"Elian's mother brought him to this great country seeking the promises of our Statue of Liberty," Mr. Gutierrez said.
Through June 11, the Justice Department spent $1.8 million on the case.
Congress reacted to the Supreme Court decision mostly along party lines, with Republicans decrying it.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and a vociferous foe of communist Cuba, accused Mr. Clinton of a "monstrous crime" for returning the boy.
"What Clinton has done, in effect, is to throw a 6-year-old boy over the Berlin Wall," Mr. Diaz-Balart said in a statement. "Elian has been placed under the control of a bloody tyrant."
The Republican leadership agreed.
"Today's Supreme Court decision on Elian Gonzalez casts a long shadow over our tradition of freedom," said Rep. Tom DeLay, Texas Republican and the majority whip.
"Ignoring his mother's dying wish to bring this boy safely to the United States is an affront to our guiding values and beliefs. It can never be in a child's best interests to live under communism."
But many Democrats supported the ruling.
"This is an important moment that shows the world and the people of Cuba that the United States is a nation of laws," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. "And I am proud that our laws recognize the value of reuniting a son with his father."
In Miami's Little Havana, there were tears of anguish and resignation.
"It's breaking my heart what has happened to this little boy. He's going to Cuba for what?" asked Marta Santana, 69, who stood outside the home of the Miami relatives wearing a sandwich board covered with color photos of the child.
One woman ripped up a "Free Elian" banner and snapped the pole of a U.S. flag over her knee. Another collapsed and several sobbed hysterically; others formed a prayer circle.
"This boy was not given a chance to defend himself," said Ester Granda, 74. "That kid is not going to his father. He's going back to Fidel."
But at Little Havana's Versaille Restaurant, most seemed to accept the Supreme Court decision.
"He had his day in court. That's it," said Octavio Oliu, 54, a Cuban-born engineer. "I would have been upset if he hadn't had his day in court. As a citizen of this country, that's all I can ask, that he have his day in court."
Elian's departure was the second defeat in two days for Cuban-Americans who oppose the Castro regime.
On Tuesday, congressional Republicans approved a plan to allow sales of food and medicine to Cuba, a move that would ease the U.S. embargo on the communist nation for the first time in 40 years.
Ninoska Perez, spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, said she felt saddened but not defeated by Elian's return.
"We did what we have always done defended a just cause," she said. "We were prepared. It was to be expected by the Clinton administration."
She said Cuban-Americans will hold Vice President Al Gore, the expected Democratic presidential nominee, and other Democratic candidates accountable in the November elections.
John Drake contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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