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Together at Last

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In the dimmed lights of the eight-seat U.S. Marshals plane carrying him toward the long-delayed reunion with his father, it was impossible to say what 6-year-old Elián Gonzalez was thinking. But perhaps all that mattered to him at the moment was the strong hand of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Betty Mills running through his hair and gently soothing him. Five months after Elián had been rescued at sea clutching an inner tube following the drowning death of his mother, Elisabet Brotons Rodriguez, 30, he was now clinging to Mills, even falling asleep in her lap. “She was patting him on his back and on his head,” says Dr. Gustavo Cadavid, a psychiatrist for the INS who was on the plane. “She was very motherly. In a way, there was some rapport being established.”

The ministrations of Mills, 33, the divorced Spanish-speaking agent who had bundled Elián out of the Miami home of his great-uncle Lázaro González during the INS’s predawn raid on April 22, may have been partly responsible for the surprisingly smooth recovery that Elián appeared to make from those terrifying few moments. When reunited later that morning with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, 31, at a safe house at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., Elián hugged him tight and cried. The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, a key American adviser to Juan Miguel, visited Elián and his father on their first day together and recalls being struck by the bond apparent between the two. “There was a little truck that they were trying to put together,” says Campbell. “Elián only wanted his father to help. He would crawl into his lap and put his arms around him and look at him, and Juan Miguel would put his arms around him.”

Elián seemed to take special delight in being with his 6-month-old half brother Hianny, who was there with Juan Miguel’s second wife, Nersy Carmenate Castillo. “One time the baby fell over and Elián sang him a song in Spanish and he stopped crying,” says Campbell, who was accompanied at the air base by her 12-year-old granddaughter Jessica. “Elián was very proud of himself.” Indeed, Elián seemed to take a certain comfort in being, for a change, the one who could provide the nurturing. “If [Hianny] fussed, he would bring him a toy and try to make him happy,” says Campbell. “He crawled into the crib with him once because he was crying.”

During the flight up from Miami, according to INS physician Carlos Quinones, Elián himself had been teary at one point, asking about his cousin Marisleysis, 21, who had been serving as his surrogate mother. But once inside Andrews’s tightly secured grounds, Elián reportedly passed his first few days back with his father in blissful ignorance of the furor that continued to surround his case. On Easter Sunday—while Marisleysis and a handful of her Miami relatives tried in vain to be admitted to Andrews—someone at the base dressed as the Easter Bunny stopped by to give Elián candy. The little boy watched the Cartoon Network and even got to play catch outside with two other boys.

Two days later the U.S. Marshals Service, continuing to provide protection for Elián and his family, moved them to Carmichael House, a farmhouse on the grounds of Wye Plantation. The secluded 1,100-acre retreat and conference center with tennis courts, swimming pools and miles of hiking trails on Maryland’s Eastern Shore previously hosted the 1998 Middle East peace talks. To ensure that Elián doesn’t get lonely, the State Department announced that a few of the boy’s Cuban friends, each accompanied by one adult, would be allowed to visit him for about two weeks.

Just how the Elián endgame will play out remains very much an open question. Under the guidance of his Miami relatives, the youngster applied in December for political asylum in the United States. On April 19 the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that his asylum hearing, now scheduled for May 11, should go forward despite his age and that Elián could not be brought back to Cuba before the hearing. But this could become a moot point. Even if his petition is successful, Elián would be under no obligation to stay in the U.S. Conceivably, his father, who now has legal custody of the boy, could simply wait for the ruling and, regardless of the outcome, then board a plane for Havana with his family.

In fact the germ of this scenario seems already to have been planted in Elián’s mind. The Reverend Campbell says that as she and her granddaughter were saying goodbye to Elián on Saturday he called out to them in Spanish, “Come visit us in Cuba.”

Bill Hewitt

Linda Killian in Washington, D.C. and Liza Hamm in New York City