November 5, 2001

Will the real Elian please stand up

By Todd Robson. Special To The Globe and Mail. Saturday, November 3, 2001.

CARDENAS, CUBA -- It has been a little more than two years since Elian Gonzalez was thrust onto the world's stage, the unsuspecting child star of the 20th century's biggest custody battle. Now that he is back in his Cuban home, Elian's celebrity has begun to fade, but his journey from Cuba to the United States and back again left an indelible mark on world politics.

So, where is Elian? Cuban authorities will tell you that he has gone home to live a normal life with his father in Cardenas, Cuba. It's a life away from the camera's unblinking eye. Journalists no longer watch Elian's every move. Gone are the crowds and the lawyers and the politicians. Instead, Elian spends his days the way any other Cuban child does. The only reminder of his extraordinary journey is a state-run museum erected in his name, to highlight Elian's dramatic rescue from capitalist America.

The Museum of Struggle and Ideas opened in July. It's located just a few blocks from Elian's school in Cardenas, a port city just a short drive from the lavish beach-front resorts of Varadero. Once referred to as the "Flag City," Cardenas is steeped in history. On May 19, 1850, Narcisco Lopez and 600 Kentucky mercenaries invaded the island with a plan to seize the island from Spain, but their goal was thwarted, and in Cardenas, the first Cuban flag was raised in victory.

Today, the glory of Cardenas has faded considerably. The once thriving port is too shallow for the deep-bellied ships of the Caribbean and residents make a living in the fields of sugar cane or at the nearby oil refineries that coat the roofs, roads and buildings with a fine layer of grime.

There are no signs pointing the way to the Museum of Struggle and Ideas. No glossy tourism brochures. It is as if the museum is for local Cubans only, but I was determined to find it.

After four wrong turns and two illegal trips down one-way streets, I happened upon my destination -- a freshly painted, gold-coloured building that seemed out of place in this dilapidated city. I parked nearby and prepared for a trip down memory lane, Cuban style.

Having just opened in July, the museum is Cuba's newest cultural monument to the pioneers who have made the country what it is today. In the first two months after Fidel Castro personally opened it to the public, 21,000 visitors passed through its doors. At least that's what the guide told me, before outlining the rules of the museum. There would be no wandering alone, no note pads or cameras. Questions were welcomed, but not all would be answered, he explained.

The tour begins in a room filled with rusty artifacts from the early 19th century. It was portrayed as a time line of Cuban history, but I quickly realized that the main focus was on all of the terrible things that the U.S. did to Cuba. An odd perspective on Alexander Hamilton's quest for Manifest Destiny in 1804 was followed by a list of various alleged invasions of Cuba by the Central Intelligence Agency. The guide explained that agents were sent to try and overthrow the Castro regime, then launched into an explanation of how Canada was also the target of CIA operations.

The guide proudly touts Cuban technological achievement, suggesting that the island would become the Western centre of education and culture within a decade. Pictures of Castro are everywhere. In one photo, he appears to be at a rural school, pointing out the values of solar energy. In another photo, he's on the street with a group of children, then later on stage -- surrounded by kids.

"Fidel loves children, and children love Fidel," the guide tells me. "Fidel is not a president who needs protection or must be kept at a distance from his people," he says.

Reaching the largest room in the museum, I finally catch a glimpse of Elian. All four walls are adorned with photographs of the young icon of Cuban independence. In the centre of the room is a large statue of a boy. He's cradled in the hands of Cuba's working writers and artists, the guide explains.

Elian's left hand holds a figurine of Superman. It's as if he's preparing to toss the idol of American culture into the ocean. Elian was deeply unhappy living in America, the guide insists. He launched into a brief diatribe about Elian's "rescue." It's a word used often to describe Elian Gonzalez's ordeal.

The guide spoke of Castro's efforts to organize a rescue team to bring Elian back from Cuba and how tirelessly the boy's father worked to wrestle his child's freedom from America. A woman was introduced, and our guide explained that she was a member of Elian's rescue team. I asked a question and she excused herself, disappearing up a flight of stairs.

One of the highlights of the tour is a series of before-and-after photos, used to describe Elian's evolution of happiness. In one image, the boy sits with a relative in Florida, obviously bored, or perhaps tired.

"Observe the joy he has being in the arms of a true Cuban," our guide said confidently, pointing to a photo of Elian and his grandmother. "You will notice how much happier he obviously is now that he has been rescued."

Our attention turned to a montage of newspaper articles from around the world, many of them reporting the support for Elian's return to Cuba. There were photos of a joyous Elian with Castro. Pictures of a smiling Elian with his friends. A happy ending, the guide explained ushering us to the door.

"But where is Elian now," I inquired. "Does he live a regular life." The guide nodded, pointing to a small schoolhouse just a block from the museum. It's where Elian attends school every day with his friends and classmates, we were told. With my camera in tow, I advanced, determined to catch a glimpse of the little boy who changed history. But before I had reached the school yard, a security guard intercepted me. Two police officers arrived on motorcycles and I was told to leave immediately.

The tour guide watched the exchange with interest, and before I left, I addressed him one last time.

"But have you ever met Elian?" I ask him hopefully.

"Yes, all the time. He comes by quite often to visit," he said with a smile. "But not today."

Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive


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