MIAMI -- Juan Miguel Gonzalez is the shadowy figure at the center of the drama here: much discussed, never seen. In the four months of the Elian saga, he has only occasionally been directly heard from.
That doesn't stop some people from feeling as if they know him. Many believe he is a caring father, but there are whispers now that maybe the family knows things about him that are not so good. Some believe he should have been here for his son months ago -- and would have been, except that he is a communist, and communists care nothing about kids. Others aren't so sure about that, and believe he would apply for asylum himself at the first opportunity -- the Disney ending so many here hope for.
What the disparate camps have in common, of course, is that their opinions are based on very little fact. Yet, in the tough skirmish between the private and the political in this case, who Juan Miguel is seems to matter more every day.
From the beginning, this has been an easy issue for a lot of the people who want Elian to stay in the United States. You don't send back anyone who has escaped Fidel Castro, and that's that. Many of the Cuban community here have lost family members to the seas or to Castro's oppression. They are quick to point out that Elian's mother died for his freedom.
But the arrival of Elian's father in Washington makes it all more complicated. It renders the political deeply personal.
If this is -- as the zealots at the barricades endlessly maintain -- a family matter, Juan Miguel is as family as it gets.
Even some of those who have been perfecting their human chain techniques for days now find it hard to say that a child should not be reunited with his only living parent.
The clash between two strongly held values in this community -- hatred of Fidel Castro and everything he stands for vs. respect for the family -- is a conflict that has grown steadily more gut-wrenching.
Jose Cruz is a 21-year-old member of the Democracy Movement, the most visible organized group devoted to preventing Elian's return to Cuba. Though they insist there will be no violence, Mr. Cruz and his compatriots insist they are willing to lay down their lives, if necessary, for Elian's cause.
But he says the human chain will step aside for Juan Miguel.
"I would admire that," he said of such a visit. "We would receive him with flowers and no threats."
In absentia, Juan Miguel has taken a public relations beating. The whispering campaign -- the charges that he beat Elian, that he beat Elian's mother -- goes on in two languages.
Elian's Miami relatives have taken to insisting that he is afraid of his father and begs daily not to be turned over to him.
This after the family forcefully and repeatedly defended him as a father through most of the course of events.
Given many opportunities to suggest that Juan Miguel was an unfit father, they did just the opposite, stressing that he had remained a daily part of Elian's life after divorcing his first wife.
But that was back in the heady days of December and January, when they believed they would prevail with ease, that Congress would save them even if the Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to press forward with the unthinkable demand that Elian go back. There seemed so many avenues then, so many ways to win.
Now that Elian's legal options are dwindling, trashing his father has become the new strategy. If the Miami relatives can maneuver the case into a state family court and persuade the elected judge to accept allegations of abuse and perhaps worse, then maybe they can still win. All this, of course, in support of the best interests of the child.
It seems the only way for them to win now is to destroy the notion of family. But there are still two ways for Juan Miguel Gonzalez to get his good name back. All he has to do is renounce Fidel.
Or his own son.
Adrian Walker writes for the Boston Globe.