CARDENAS, Cuba – Cuba’s most famous schoolboy, Elian Gonzalez, went back to classes on Monday and his father denied a U.S. media report that his son might go to the United Nations this month with a Cuban delegation to a U.N. children’s assembly.
Elian, the 7-year-old shipwreck survivor at the heart of a bitter and highly politicized custody feud between his father and anti-Castro exiles last year, walked up to his elementary school and joined a throng of children greeting each other after the summer vacation.
His father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, held him by the hand and left him at the door of the Marcelo Salado elementary school, which Elian has attended since returning last year to his home town Cardenas, on Cuba’s northern coast about 100 miles (160 km) east of Havana.
There was no fanfare for Elian, who has largely been kept out of the public eye since returning to Cuba from the United States in June 2000.
He spent seven months there, caught in a custody battle that erupted when he was plucked from the ocean off Florida after a migrant boat journey from Cuba that killed his mother and 10 other people.
Elian’s father, whose fight against relatives in Miami to have his son returned to the communist-run island became a personal crusade for Cuban President Fidel Castro, spoke briefly to reporters from foreign media outside the school.
He denied a report last Thursday by Time magazine that Cuban authorities were considering sending Elian as part of a delegation to the U.N. children’s conference in New York Sept. 19-21. Cuban authorities have already denied the report.
“No,” Juan Miguel Gonzalez said, asked about the possible trip. “Really, I have been consulted (by Cuban authorities) about anything that has been planned for my family, and for the moment, I am not going anywhere.
The report last week on Time’s website, which said Cuban authorities were “weighing” whether to send Elian, quickly revived Cuban exile passions on the Elian affair. In Miami, the child’s great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez said it would be “ridiculous” to take Elian back to the United States and would prove he was being used by Castro as a trophy.
After the migrant voyage that killed his mother, Elian was taken in by Lazaro Gonzalez and other relatives in Miami who, backed by many of Castro’s foes in the city’s exile community, mounted a fierce battle to keep him in the United States.
The Clinton administration supported reuniting Elian with his father. U.S. federal agents seized the child from the Miami relatives’ home in a raid in April 2000 and Elian was reunited with his father in Washington. The pair flew home to Cuba two months later after the Miami relatives lost their legal battle in U.S. court.
After a massive campaign of government organized rallies and protests for his return, Elian has been mostly kept from the media eye since coming back to Cuba and has been seen only on a few occasions. Most recently, he was present when Castro opened a museum to the “Battle of Ideas” in Cardenas in July.
Elian also attended a Havana children’s rally in July and was glimpsed by the media earlier this year around celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and meeting South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Elian, entering third grade this year and smiling as he chattered with schoolmates on Monday morning, was dressed in the uniform of Cuban elementary school children: a white shirt, maroon shorts and the blue neck scarf of the pioneers.
He was just one of some 2.4 million students, from pre- school to university, returning to class on a day that Castro’s government heralds each year as a symbol of the successes of its 42-year-old revolution – free education for all.
This year’s return to school has focused on a drive to make computers available in every school on the island of 11 million people, something that could be a tough challenge since many Cuban schools are still suffering the effects of the economic recession that hit Cuba in the early 1990s.
Elian, whose pixie smile captured the heart of millions in Cuba, the United States and further afield during last year’s bitter custody battle, is said to be a good student.
His father, a tourism worker, said he hoped that by studying well this year Elian “would get much better marks than last year, when he got ‘very good.”‘