ELIAN, DAD GO BACK TO CUBA
(LPP Archive) - Thursday, June 29th 2000, 2:13AM
Nestled in his father's arms, Elian Gonzalez smiled shyly yesterday and waved goodbye to America before boarding a plane for the three-hour flight back to Cuba.
Seven months after he fled the island in a rickety boat and began a journey that claimed his mother and sparked an international custody battle, the 6-year-old castaway was heading home.
"We are very happy to be going home," the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, said at Washington's Dulles International Airport before he carried his son to a waiting Learjet.
The Supreme Court scripted the final chapter of the Elian saga in a 26-word statement that rejected an emergency petition filed by the boy's Miami relatives to postpone Elian's departure.
Before the injunction barring Juan Miguel Gonzalez from taking Elian out of the country expired at 4 p.m., they were at the airport filling out customs forms and preparing to fly to Havana.
Elian's grandmothers and classmates from his school in Cardenas were expected to greet the boy and his father at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. But Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, who staged huge demonstrations demanding Elian's return, was not expected to greet the boy at the airport.
No public welcome-home ceremonies were planned, and Elian was not expected to return immediately to his father's house in Cardenas.
In Washington, federal marshals far outnumbered the handful of anti-Castro demonstrators outside the estate where Elian had been staying with his father, stepmother, half-brother and several Cuban schoolmates.
It was a sweet farewell after seven tumultuous months that began when he was found floating in the Florida Straits on Thanksgiving. During his stay, Elian became an icon for the Cuban exile community as well as Castro's regime.
The drama reached a climax in April, when a photo of his terrified face flashed around the world after a helmeted federal agent armed with an automatic weapon flushed him and an adult who was holding him out of a closet where they were hiding.
By contrast, the boy spent his last morning in America quietly studying, and it wasn't until around 12:30 p.m. that he learned he was going home.
"The mood was restrained, but they were obviously very happy," said Sally Grooms Cowal of the Center for Youth and Understanding International Exchange, which hosted the Cubans.
Before the Gonzalez family departed a little after 3 p.m., Cowal said Juan Miguel thanked her and gave the group two Cuban flags. In return, Elian was given a pillow in the shape of a globe, a pencil, a picture book and an American flag. Juan Miguel was given a coffee-table book of Washington to pass on to Castro.
Dressed in khaki pants and a print shirt, Elian traveled by motorcade to Dulles, where bomb-sniffing dogs inspected the two planes chartered to carry the Cubans home.
Attorney General Janet Reno, who was widely reviled in her native Miami for pressing for the boy's return to his father, said she was pleased the Supreme Court had declined to review the case.
"All involved have had an opportunity to make their case - all the way to the highest court in the land," Reno said. "I hope that everyone will accept the Supreme Court's decision and join me in wishing this family, and this special little boy, well."
President Clinton expressed regret that the Elian saga was so "traumatic" but supported a court ruling that placed the responsibility for Elian's future with his "loving father."
On Monday, the boy's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez asked the Supreme Court to set aside last week's federal appeals court ruling denying Elian's application for political asylum. The court ended months of legal wrangling with two sentences.
Afterward, a frustrated Lazaro yelled at photographers who filmed him emerging from a church. He had to be restrained by his daughter, Marisleysis.