KWAME HOLMAN: Since he was rescued last Thanksgiving from the waters off Florida, six-year-old Elian Gonzalez has lived as a symbol of the Cuban-American community's long-standing war of words with Fidel Castro's government in Havana.
And for weeks now, many of Miami's 800,000 Cuban Americans have demonstrated regularly to underscore the desire of Elian's Cuban-American relatives that he stay in the U.S. They've held candlelight vigils, rallies and tied up the streets of Miami. By late last week, the demonstrations had quieted down while advocates awaited possible action on Elian's case in federal court. On the streets of Miami's little Havana, however, anger remains over the federal government's January 5th decision to support Elian's father's wish that his son be returned to him in Cuba.
YOUNG MAN: He might not even want to be with his father. He just wants freedom. That's what he wants. That's why everybody comes to the United States in the first place.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the Versailles Restaurant, a frequent stop for Miami's Cuban Americans, Elian's story triggers strong emotions.
GEORGE GARCIA: All Cubans have a little bit of Elian in their hearts because they have suffered separations, they have suffered... Most families, you know someone who's been put in jail, someone that has died, someone that has drowned.
RANDY ESPINET: Personally, I would like Elian to be able to grow up in a free country, and that sacrifice of his mother dying to bring him here, that it would not be in vain.
KWAME HOLMAN: Local opinion polls show most Cuban Americans share that view. Nonetheless, Alfredo Duran, the former head of a group that advocates better U.S. relations with Cuba, says they are conflicted about Elian Gonzalez.
ALFREDO DURAN: In this particular issue it is a very, very divided community. It is a community that recognizes that a child should be with his parents; it is a community that believes that politics should not be involved in the decisions that will affect the life of this child. And, on the other hand, you have this community that believes that anything that can be hurtful to the government of Cuba is fair play, and that anything may be used to effect that hurt on the Cuban government.
KWAME HOLMAN: Miami's non-Cubans tell pollsters Elian should be with his father, nationwide polls agree. Jorge Mas heads the Cuban-American National Foundation based in Miami, perhaps the nation's most prominent anti-Castro group.
JORGE MAS: I think everyone's reaction, initially in a case like this, is obviously a boy should be with his father. But what we need to recognize is the circumstances surrounding Cuba and surrounding the issue. Cuba is not a land of freedom or liberty; it is not a land where parents have a right to their children. Children are property of the state, and that's in the Cuban constitution. That's what people need to understand, that at the age of seven, he loses his rights to milk, and at the age of 11, he is sent into Communist youth groups in the fields with no adult supervision.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the Elian Gonzalez case has become more than just another high-profile incident in the 40-year conflict between Cuban-Americans and the Castro government. This time, the press conferences, rallies and protests have brought on unprecedented criticism of Cuban-Americans, their tactics, and even their cause. Much of the disenchantment among Miami residents crystallized after Cuban-Americans closed down roadways, delaying commuters.
TONYA ELLIS: You can't help but get upset. The fact that they shut down everything any time that they disagree with what the government is doing -- this is not the first time that they have shut down a road or a bridge or... this is their way. They are like the proverbial spoiled baby.
KWAME HOLMAN: Did the protests turn more people against the predominant Cuban-American position?
NANCY FREEDMAN: I would say so. I would say so. This is going to happen every time something occurs. We're going to have protests every time someone is picked up at sea, if they're six years old, ten years old, 86 years old. This is going to happen every time?
JUAN TEJERIZO: They are taking advantage to create problems, to make demonstrations and all that stuff, and it's not for the kid. It's for some people here. They just hate Castro and Cuban people, and they take advantage of the situation to create a lot of noises.
KWAME HOLMAN: While some in Miami have grown weary of their city's preoccupation with Elian Gonzalez, others are reminded that members of a different refugee group get comparatively little attention. On New Year's Day, the U.S. Coast Guard returned some 400 Haitian refugees who were attempting to land their boat near Miami. One Haitian woman was brought to Miami for medical treatment but her two young children were sent back to Haiti with the other refugees. Immigration lawyer Cheryl Little worked to reunite them.
CHERYL LITTLE: When Cubans reach land, for the most part what happens is they may be detained for a couple of days to be processed at a place like the Krome Detention Center. Then they are released with work permits, and a year later they can apply for residency. They don't have to prove that they have an asylum claim or anything else to be entitled to that green card. Haitians, on the other hand, generally what happens is, you know, they're detained. And then after the release, they have to prove to an immigration judge that they have a well-founded fear of persecution upon return to Haiti. It's a very high standard. It's very difficult to meet, and most of these Haitians are ordered deported.
KWAME HOLMAN: Immigration officials say the disparate treatment of immigrants from Haiti and Cuba is explained by the difference in U.S. relations with those governments. Still, Haitians in Miami demonstrated to reunite the Haitian mother and her two children. They received little national attention but they did get results. Last week, federal immigration officials relented and brought the children to Miami to be with their mother until her asylum case is heard. Haitian community activist Marleine Bastien says the focus on Elian Gonzalez actually helped the Haitian mother and the overall plight of Haitian immigrants.
MARLEINE BASTIEN: There has been a lot of visibility on the Haitian case because of little Elian's case, and then people are able to see the disparity being played right in front of their eyes. They don't have to read it in the paper. They could see it played on their TV every day. Little Elian has been in the spotlight every day. There isn't a minute passed without seeing him somehow playing somewhere. And this is good.
KWAME HOLMAN: Immigration lawyer Evenette Mondesir-Agama says her Haitian clients don't resent Cuban immigrants even though the government gives them more favorable treatment.
EVENETTE MONDESIR-AGAMA: I don't believe there is resentment or jealousy on the part of the Haitian community because we feel that they are fleeing problems and we are also fleeing political problems, political upheavals in Haiti also. The only thing is we want equal treatment. We want to be treated as the Cubans are treated. We want to be treated fairly.
CHERYL LITTLE: I think the message is being sent to Washington that Washington needs to deal with people in an evenhanded manner, and that people who are similarly situated need to be treated similarly.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the message may also be getting through closer to home. Lately, Cuban-American leaders have shown increasing support for Haitian immigrants.
JORGE MAS: I have always advocated, specifically in the case of Haitian children-- who as we see in the episode here on the shores of South Florida-- that they be given an opportunity, at least a hearing, that they be given also somewhat of due process, irrespective of the ultimate decision of what's happened. Obviously, a lot of people complain about the disparity between the Cuba adjustment act and the respect for Cubans reaching the United States and other people of other nationalities, and that's a problem, and I'd like to see, obviously, equal treatment to people who are fleeing when they're being persecuted at home.
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Whether what's going on now with some of the other Cuban groups coming into the picture, whether it's real or not, we don't know. Only the future will tell.
KWAME HOLMAN: Haitian leaders say, in the meantime they are marshaling resources, organizing, building political organizations, and preparing to push their cause in the corridors of power.
MARLEINE BASTIEN: Last year, five Haitian Americans ran for office at the local and state level, and this was historical. So that is encouraging. We're learning that we do have to organize ourselves politically so that we no longer hear that you don't get this, you don't get that because you do not have political clout.
KWAME HOLMAN: The blueprint for such achievements has been aptly demonstrated by Cuban-Americans over the last 20 years with Elian Gonzalez merely the latest recipient of the results. Now many Miami residents worry about how the Cuban community will react if Elian is returned to Cuba. Some of those involved in the earlier demonstrations say residents can relax.
GEORGE GARCIA: I propose that we do not inconvenience anybody, that we stay home and we have this period of mourning for three days so those that work at the airport, those that are policemen out there, those that work in a bank those that work in restaurants, those that work in gas stations, whatever you work, stay home. Bring this period of mourning to your heart.
JORGE MAS: I know that this community, whatever decision is made in the court of law, which obviously an overwhelming majority of Cuban Americans, and I think people who love liberty would like Elian to live in the United States, we'll respect what the court says at the end of the day.
KWAME HOLMAN: That decision could come soon. Tomorrow Elian's Cuban American advocates will try to convince a federal court the U.S. Government should not be allowed to return him to Cuba.