- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 22, 2010

MIAMI | When federal agents stormed a home in the Little Havana community in April 2000, snatched Elian Gonzalez from his father’s relatives and put him on a path back to his father in Cuba, thousands of Cuban-Americans took to Miami’s streets. Their anger helped give George W. Bush the White House months later and reverberated in local and national politics long after that.

Ten years later, the Little Havana home - for weeks the epicenter of a standoff that divided the country - is a museum dedicated to Elian’s brief time in this country, but visitors are rare. Almost no one involved in the international custody case wants to talk about Elian, now a teenager back in Cuba.

Even most Cuban-Americans have moved on.

“It was a very sour taste left in their mouths,” said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “But, realistically, it was a battle to be lost.”

Elian was just shy of his sixth birthday when a fisherman found him floating in an inner tube in the waters off Fort Lauderdale on Thanksgiving 1999. His mother and others drowned trying to reach the U.S., and some hailed the boy’s survival as a miracle.

Elian’s father, who was separated from his mother, remained in Cuba, where he and Fidel Castro’s communist government demanded the boy’s return.

Elian was placed in the home of his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, while the Miami relatives and other Cuban exiles went to court to fight an order by U.S. immigration officials to return him to Cuba. Janet Reno, President Clinton’s attorney general and a Miami native, insisted that the boy belonged with his father.

When talks failed, she ordered the raid carried out April 22, 2000, the day before Easter. Her deputy, current Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., has said she wept after giving the order.

Lazaro Gonzalez declined to comment, as did his daughter, Marisleysis, who became Elian’s surrogate mother during his U.S. stay.

Mr. Clinton, who was in Miami last weekend, said he still would make the same decision because it conformed with international child custody law.

“Believe me, I hated what happened because I thought we would be able to do it in a different way,” Mr. Clinton said.

More than 300 protesters were arrested in the hours after the raid, and the community’s outrage did not subside. Vice President Al Gore lost Florida that November to Mr. Bush by a mere 537 votes, and with it the White House. Many pundits said the Elian debacle cost Democrats the race.

Within a few years, Elian faded from political discussions. Former Sen. Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American, said the boy’s name never came up when he ran for Senate in 2004 as a Republican. Another Cuban-American - former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a West Miami Republican - is running for Senate without any mention of Elian.

“I think the Elian event was an episode and not something that’s ongoing,” Mr. Martinez said recently.

As for Elian, the only people who seem to want to commemorate his saga serve in Cuba’s government. Earlier this month, officials there released photos of now-16-year-old Elian wearing an olive-green military school uniform and attending a Young Communist Union congress.

Cuba usually organizes ceremonies marking Elian’s birthday each Dec. 7 at his school and elsewhere in his hometown of Cardenas. Before he became ill, Mr. Castro usually would attend.

Pepe Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, said his group predicted in 2000 that Elian would become a prop for the Castro government if he was returned. It was one reason, he said, that the group fought for him to be kept in the U.S.

“We knew what this kid was going to be subjected to,” Mr. Hernandez said. “And time has proven us right.”

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