Cuba’s youngest celebrity rides his bike to school past one-story peach and sea-green stucco homes in a coastal city much like any other in communist Cuba.
Revolutionary slogans and pictures of Ernesto “Che” Guevara splatter buildings, and residents pay one Cuban peso — just four cents — to ride in horse-drawn carriages serving as buses.
The celebrity lives at the end of the city’s main street, near an old stone fort converted into a cafe. He is Elian Gonzalez, the castaway who came to symbolize the divide between Miami and Havana.
It’s been nearly six years since Elian was found clinging to an inner tube off the south Florida coast, sparking a high-profile custody battle between his relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba, who ultimately won his son’s return.
Today, the 11-year-old boy is stepping back into the spotlight, speaking publicly to crowds and an American news network for the first time since his return to Cuba.
Cuban exiles in Miami opposed to Fidel Castro’s government say the island’s leader is using the boy as a pawn. Supporters say Elian was saved from the “Miami mafia” and is lucky to live under Cuba’s socialist system.
In Cardenas, 85 miles east of Havana, the perspective is less political.
“I can’t say if he’s better off living here or in Miami,” said Antonio Macias, 49, an outdoor cafe manager. “But it does seem like a good thing to me that he’s here with his family.”
‘He's where he should be’
A 17-year-old student walking with friends agreed.
“He’s where he should be,” said Jorge Luis Rodriguez, who plans to become an electrician. “I think he’s happy.”
Elian lives with his father, stepmother and younger half siblings in a home protected from the press by security guards.
Authorities also keep journalists from Elian’s classroom at his middle school, where children in mustard-colored uniforms walk between two-story, blue-and-white buildings on a cozy open-air campus.
The school’s director said Elian’s teachers were unavailable for comment. A man who identified himself as a gym teacher — yet appeared to be another security guard — told The Associated Press that the boy was a top student and passionate about karate.
But while Elian has been sheltered in Cardenas, with Cuban officials saying they want the boy to have as normal a life as possible, he has been paraded at official events, often sitting in the front row next to his father Juan Miguel, now a Cuban lawmaker.
First spoke publicly in April
His visibility increased this year. In April, he gave a speech before thousands, marking his first public address at an event open to the foreign press.
Elian thanked Cubans and Americans for fighting for his return to the island at the televised event, which commemorated the fifth anniversary of his being snatched from his Miami relatives’ home by armed U.S. federal agents.
In August, Cuban television showed Elian under Castro’s arm as the Cuban leader celebrated his 79th birthday. On Sunday, the boy called the president a friend and father in an unprecedented one-on-one interview aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” He also said he has a girlfriend and hopes to become a computer scientist.
Some Cuban exiles discounted the interview, saying the boy feels compelled to say what he thinks will please Cuban officials — including Castro.
“It’s propaganda, the same as everything else,” said Ninoska Perez-Castellon, spokeswoman for the Miami-based Cuban Liberty Council. “He is a little pawn, a monkey on a chain every time Castro has some activity.”
Recalling his harrowing journey
In the interview, Elian recalled his months in Miami, saying he missed his father and wanted to return to Cuba. He also talked about the sea journey with his mother, who perished after their boat, filled with a dozen would-be migrants, capsized in a storm in November 1999.
Elian, the only child aboard, was put on an inner tube. His mother, who couldn’t swim, also held on.
“I remember it was daytime, and I saw my mother and a friend,” he told CBS. “Then I saw them fighting. No, no I couldn’t do anything. Then I fell asleep and when I opened my eyes, I didn’t see anyone.”
Florida fishermen discovered Elian, one of three survivors.
“This is a boy who really had no best option,” said Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Miami’s Florida International University. “For him there’s no happy ending, on either side of the Florida Straits.”
Fernandez, a Cuban-American, said he believes the island’s government will keep using Elian as a “symbol that can still rally Cuban nationalism.” But the boy, Fernandez said, is also at the age when Cuban children start questioning the system.
“We’ll have to see Elian at 15,” he said.