A small boy lost in a political drama

Six-year old Elian Gonzalez may be surrounded by people, but he is very much alone. And the human sharks circling around him, ready to break in and steal his soul, are more dangerous than the real ones he braved in the roiling waters off the Florida straits last November. Over the past few months, this gentle little Cuban boy has found himself to be the lead character in an international passion play that features a cast of villains so huge and cynical that Hollywood can only look on in awe, wondering why it hadn't thought of it first. And yet, the only voice we have not heard in this wide-screen epic of the last days of the cold war is that of Elian himself. He alone is mute, helpless to break through the clamor of all those who would speak for him -- entirely unable to advance the plot of his own life.

But oh, what a time the bit actors have had! From bottom-feeding Clinton-hater Rep. Dan Burton, who, in a grossly ill-conceived effort to keep Elian in the country, actually subpoenaed the boy to testify before Congress; to the severely compromised family-court judge, Rosa Rodriguez, who, even though she had absolutely no legal authority to do so, ordered Elian to remain in Miami two months longer than the deadline set by the Immigration and Naturalization Service; to the entire Cuban exile community of South Florida, whose hatred of Cuban leader Fidel Castro is so enormous and irrational that it would sacrifice the heart of an innocent child on the altar of its political fanaticism.

Even Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez has had his 15 minutes of fame. Appearing on "Larry King Live" last week, the former Cuban exile made his first national television appearance as a living example of what Elian could achieve if only he, too, were allowed to grow up in the land of freedom, opportunity and unlimited trips to Disney World. Rep. Bill McCollum wants to make the lad an instant U.S. citizen. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion of what to do with Elian. (Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was grudgingly heard from as well, but his professed love for his son and his desire to have him returned to his homeland were constantly challenged with the proviso that in Cuba's repressive atmosphere, he couldn't possibly be speaking the unfettered truth.)

Now we are in entr'acte. Attorney General Janet Reno, herself from Miami, has reasserted the primacy of the federal government's decision (not to mention U.S., Cuban and international law) stipulating that Elian be sent home. But in order to placate his emotionally charged American relatives, she has let the original Jan. 14 deadline slip by. Various conditions for Elian's return, including having his father come to our soil to claim him, have been bandied about, mostly by presidential candidates eager to weigh in with their own mealy mouthed, offstage voices. So we are all waiting for the next reel. How will the movie end?

Here's what I think will happen: A federal court will decide the case on its merits and the applicable laws and treaties. It will judge, regardless of the political landscape of his country, that Elian must be sent back home to his sole surviving parent, the father who loves and misses him. Elian's Miami relatives and the publicity-seeking Cuban exile leaders who surround him will exhaust their appeals and then, contrary to their stated promises to abide by the laws of this country, will defy the court order to surrender Elian to federal immigration authorities. U.S. marshals will have to take the boy by force in a violent confrontation. People will be hurt, Elian will be traumatized, and U.S.-Cuban relations will be set back 40 years.

Here's what should happen: All the useless, self-centered, selfish voices should cease. We should see in Elian the hopeful, unsullied possibilities of a future without political extremism of any stripe. We should all recognize the primacy of the bonds of filial love and send him home to his father. At the same time, we should end our pointless economic embargo of Cuba -- which has been unsuccessful in toppling a leader we don't like but has succeeded in pummeling the Cuban economy and its people. We would then encourage Castro to allow Elian to visit his Miami relatives at will, and when he is 18, grant him dual citizenship with the option of deciding where he will spend his adult life.

Elian Gonzalez has been made the poster boy of a worn-out ideological battle. He has been used to inflame the worst political instincts of two nations, senselessly continuing the corrosive confrontations that have retarded normal relations for decades. In an increasingly interdependent world, Elian could be the harbinger of a new diplomacy where unfettered cultural, human and economic exchange is the norm. Elian can lead us to a better future. If only he can swim fast enough from the sharks.