Elian Returns to Class in Cuba

With government-supplied school uniforms, it’s hard for Cuban elementary students to stand out in the crowd on the first day of class; yet one of them, blending in among the second-graders, is Elian Gonzalez.

As the school year opened today, photographers in the boy’s hometown of Cardenas prepared for what many hope will be the final stakeout for Elian — possibly the world’s most-photographed 6-year-old.

After this, school officials hope he will be allowed some anonymity.

‘Just Like Anybody Else’

Elian’s schoolmates have been encouraged to treat the shipwreck survivor “just like anybody else.” The Cuban government also has made it clear that reporters won’t be allowed to swarm the boy on the first day of school, or thereafter.

“We think we have been successful at preserving the greatest intimacy possible for this family that has suffered so much,” Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said Thursday.

Since the seven-month custody battle between Elian’s father and his Miami relatives drew to a close with the boy’s return to Cuba on June 28, he has lived quietly, away from the public eye. His first day at school will be his first public appearance in months.

“Don’t be hanging over all over him. The poor kid has had a lot of problems, and everything should be as normal as possible for him now,” said Luanda Leon, recounting advice given at a meeting this week among teachers and parents of Elian’s 27 new classmates.

Leon’s 7-year-old son, Ariel Cisneros, will be in Elian’s class at the high-ceilinged old school in the coastal city of Cardenas, about 90 miles east of Havana.

Workmen this week spruced up the Marcelo Salado school, named after a revolutionary youth leader. They put in new toilets and replaced bricks in the building, which holds about 900 students.

The school will have water coolers, TV sets and videocassette recorders in every other classroom — a wealth of equipment found in some, but not all, Cuban grade schools.

Family Has Been Enjoying Privacy

Elian was found clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving after his mother and 10 other Cubans drowned when their boat sank during an attempt to reach the United States. He was returned to his father after U.S. authorities seized him from the home of his Miami relatives during a nighttime raid in April.

Since his homecoming, the family reportedly has been living at a Havana boarding school, away from the media spotlight.

“He’s been able to enjoy some vacations in privacy and with his family,” Perez Roque said. “I think I can say that things have gone well for Elian Gonzalez.”

Snippets of video broadcast on state-run television have shown Elian playing with friends, riding in a small boat with his father and swimming among dolphins near an undisclosed beach location. He was also shown making up schoolwork, practicing cursive letters.

Those opposed to his return to Cuba had predicted Fidel Castro would parade the boy around as a poster child for communism. The Cuban leader appears to have made a conscious effort not to give his political enemies ammunition to use against him.

Even when Castro met the boy, whose plight absorbed the island nation, no photographs of the meeting were published and no videotaped images were shown.

Elian himself was nowhere in sight this week. Plainclothes guards stood outside his family’s home to discourage reporters.

But there is another Elian here, explains Yolaine Betancourt: her 7-year-old son, Elian Betancourt, who was playing with toy cars on the floor of a neighbor’s home in Cardenas.

It may be hard for this other little Elian not to make a fuss the first day of school.

“He’s very excited about meeting him,” Betancourt said of her son’s famous namesake. “My son’s going to look at him like something out of this world!”