Elian Goes Global

Thanks to the Elian Gonzalez saga, things in las dos Havanas are becoming surreal. In Little Havana reporters spend hours waiting for a six-year-old kid to wheel by on a bicycle, and tourists pose for photos in front of the home where he is staying. Across the Florida Straits, Fidel Castro's government mobilizes thousands to demand the return of el hijo de todos (everybody's son). Two apparently nice, elderly women metamorphose into lobbyists during their visit to the United States, then appear on a Cuban televised Oprah-style talk show after returning home. And Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, chosen by the immigration service to host a Gonzalez family reunion because of her neutral stance, turns out to be no more impartial than Austria during World War II.

If you think this is strange, just go online. On the Internet the custody battle over Elian has reached Dadaist proportions. Hundreds of the boy's fans have attended virtual candlelight vigils, signed cyberspace petitions, and almost 700 people boycotted the Super Bowl in cyber fashion to protest the child's treatment. Everything from porn sites to travel agencies use Elian's name as bait to lure Web surfers.

America Online members have posted more than 50,000 messages about Elian with titles such as "National Council of Castro Lovers" and "Scarface Runs the GOP." On AltaVista the quest for Elian yields 246,407 matches. The search engine offered to spotlight Elian in national ads, but was turned down by the Gonzalez family. Yahoo has a page dedicated to Elian news. In fact Elian has inspired more keystrokes on Infoseek than Jennifer Lopez. "It's a highly trafficked issue on our service," says Nicholas Graham, spokesperson for AOL. But, he notes, the boy still hasn't caught the queen supreme of cyberspace, Monica Lewinsky.

Among the multitude of Elian Websites is one created by Jules Dervaes, a farmer and leather craftsman from Pasadena, California, who believes Elian should be returned to the custody of his dad, Juan Gonzalez. "It is the God-given right of a father to raise his own child," the 52-year-old responded, when New Times questioned him by e-mail. The Let Elian Gonzalez Go Home! site Dervaes put together is the most elaborate on the Net. Visitors can link to organizations that support Elian's return, print out a poster of Elian behind a chainlink fence, e-mail anyone from the pope to Mayor Alex Penelas about the boy, and sign a petition addressed to President Bill Clinton and the United Nations demanding the boy's return to Cuba. The site also counts how many days Elian has been in "captivity." "It was designed to promote involvement at the grassroots level," Dervaes writes. "Also it was to provide a central meeting place and an opportunity to stand united."

On the Elian Should Stay site, those who think the six-year-old is better off in Miami can e-mail Senate majority leader Trent Lott, send Bill Clinton a "Liberty Letter" at the click of a mouse, and print out a poster of Elian in the center of a mystical ring of dolphins. A featured "coward list" refers to Janet Reno as "Big Sister," claims Castro suffers from "numerous psychiatric disorders," and accuses Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly, of spreading lies "thicker than hog manure in North Carolina." This Website's creators say sending Elian back to Cuba amounts to child abuse. "The equation is simple," writes Will Hein, one of about twelve amateur Web designers from north central Florida, who worked on Elian Should Stay. "Child plus communism equals abuse."

Mark Da Cunha agrees. In an e-mail to New Times, the Bahamian publisher of an online magazine called CapitalismMagazine.com, says he supports Elian's right to life in the free world. "If I were still a kid, I would not want to spend 30 to 60 days a year after age eleven working in the fields cutting sugar cane and tobacco," Da Cunha writes.

The official newspaper of Cuba's Communist party, Granma, also has an Elian page. It's called Kidnap in Miami, and contains a list of articles with headlines such as "The Wolf in Woman's Clothing" (a story about U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen). "Of vaguely Cuban origin, rabidly ultraright-wing, with a distinctive intellectual mediocrity, she has managed to make herself a daughter of the United States and, at the same time, contributed notably to damaging that country's image," writes Nicanor Leon Cotayo.

On Daryl Cagle's Pro Cartoonist Index site, there is an entire collection of Elian editorial cartoons. In one of them, the tug of war ceases when the boy is cloned. A droopy-eyed television reporter states that "young Elian Gonzalez will return home to his father in Cuba and stay in Miami with relatives." A parody published by a fictional Baptist church called Landover Baptist proposes another solution. A headline that reads "Baptists raise $7 million to patch Cuban boy's innertube [sic]"captures the "send 'em all back" sentiment that's freely aired on the Internet. But the strangest Elian cyber moment came from a Yahoo! club called FreeDebateOnElian, which is run by a fourteen-year-old kid named Mike Halterman. At a cyber town meeting Alaskans, Manilans, and Scandinavians sarcastically pondered whether Elian had healing powers and if he was the Dalai Lama of Little Havana. Visiting Elian's home and seeing the media camped out, you'd think the town meeting attendees were on to something. Night and day the camera crews patiently await some divine message, which, like good pilgrims, they will spread across the land.



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