HAVANA — HAVANA - With tears and jubilation, Cubans welcomed Elian Gonzalez back to his homeland last night, his seven-month American odyssey ended exactly the way many who fought to keep in him the United States feared - with the boy engulfed in a controlled, flag-waving show of national victory.
The 6-year-old Elian, accompanied by his father, family and friends, landed at Jose Marti Airport here about 7:45 p.m., touching off cheers from the hundreds of schoolchildren organized as a welcoming party on the tarmac and quiet joy among Cubans watching live coverage of the return of a prodigal son.
"Tears come to my eyes because I am a mother and I have been wishing a long time for him to come back," said Eloina Matos, 36, a waitress at an outdoor cafM-i in Havana where a small group of employees and customers were glued to the TV and its wall-to-wall coverage.
Elian and his entourage had wasted little time leaving the United States after the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the boy's Miami relatives, who have sought to keep him in America ever since he was rescued off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day.
The sweet-faced boy, who survived a boatwreck that killed his mother and 10 other Cubans fleeing their country, became a cause celebre on both sides of the Florida Straits, with Miami's exile community fighting to keep him from the clutches of their sworn enemy, Cuba's President Fidel Castro.
The high court's decision meant that Elian was free to leave the United States after a stay keeping him there expired at 4 p.m. And quickly, he did just that, with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, making good on his repeated statements that he wanted to return with his son to Cuba rather than defect to the United States as so many others who have had the opportunity have done.
Just before boarding his plane, Juan Miguel Gonzalez approached the microphones and said, "Despite all the suffering of my family, I believe that this has helped me meet some brilliant, wonderful people in this country. And I believe that in the future there can be the same friendship ... between our two countries, between Cuba and the United States."
Castro, who had kept up a drumbeat of pressure for the boy's return through mass rallies and huge billboards, did not appear at the Havana airport. And yet, like a puppetmaster behind the scenes, he orchestrated a low-keyed response to the end of the struggle over Elian.
Television anchors read statements from the Cuban government, asking people to celebrate quietly in their hearts rather than in the streets, reminding them that the U.S. government had worked to reunite the boy with his father and return them to Cuba.
Miami Cubans vilified
It was only the so-called Miami Mafia, the Cuban exiles who abandoned their homeland for the United States, who were trying to prevent the boy from leaving, the state-controlled TV anchors said.
Cubans expressed hope that the resolution of Elian's fate would signal a new era in the long-running tensions between the two countries.
"He is an innocent child; he is not responsible for the politics," said Carlos Martinez, an electrician celebrating both his 34th birthday and Elian's return at one of the El Rapido chain of cafes in Havana.
"I listened to the words of the father about the friendships he made in American and I wonder if the U.S. and Cuba can also be friends again."
When the plane landed, gliding toward the family members and arrayed schoolchildren, cheers resounded, both on the tarmac and across Havana.
When the plane door opened, and Juan Miguel Gonzalez carried his son down the stairs, the children began singing the national anthem and the boy was quickly embraced by relatives.
It was several moments before Elian's feet touched Cuban ground: He was passed relative to relative in a personal mosh pit.
He and his family and friends were expected to spend several weks in a government guest house in Havana before he returns to his hometown of Cardenas.
Watching the reunion scene on TV, Cubans sighed happily. Small cheers erupted, tears of happiness were wiped away.
Yet, many Cubans were not even watching the arrival on television. In a city where very few of the restaurants have TV sets, many Cubans behaved as if it were just another night. They gathered over Cristal beers with friends, they strolled in the cool evening after a typically hot day, and they fussed over their aging cars.
Elian's last day in the United States had begun in Washington, inside the yellow clapboard house on rolling grounds near the National Cathedral in Cleveland Park, where the Gonzalez family had been staying for more than a month.
A gaggle of curiosity-seekers, TV news crews and protesters gathered outside. With news helicopters humming overhead and U.S. marshals watching, four members of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition held up handmade signs that read, "Shame," "Pray for Elian" and "Back to No Future."
"Elian is not being turned back to [his father] Juan Miguel. He's being turned back to Fidel Castro," said the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, head of the group, which represents various Christian denominations and has protested efforts to return Elian to Cuba.
Prayers for Gonzalez family
Ramon Miro, 31, a Cuban-American who works as a statistician for the federal government and lives in the neighborhood, said he had come by the property every day, mostly to pray for Elian and his family.
"I think we should consider packing up the Statue of Liberty and sending it back to France," Miro said later. "I'm not sure what that statue means anymore."
Inside the house, owned by the Youth for Understanding International Exchange, Elian and his playmates were being prepared for the trip home.
There was a huge delivery of balloons. The organization's staff gave each of the children - Elian and the children who had come from Cuba to keep him company - pillows shaped like globes, books with pictures of Washington, flags and pencils. The staff also gave Juan Miguel Gonzalez a book.
Gonzalez thanked the staff for their hospitality; the family was happy but very "restrained and dignified," said Sally Cowal, the organization's president.
About 3 p.m., a caravan of 10 or so vans and police cars with flashing lights and sirens sped down the driveway, heading toward Dulles International Airport.
The only images that could be made out through the tinted windows were those of several tiny arms, waving.
At Dulles, two eight-seat, twin-engine jets with U.S. flags on their tails waited on the tarmac as Juan Miguel Gonzalez came out to address a line of 40 to 50 news crews.
"We are ... happy to go home," he said in English, after a more extended speech in Spanish that was inaudible above the noise of plane engines and a half-dozen news and police helicopters overhead.
Parents and children walked hand in hand from a mobile lounge to their respective planes, and finally, Elian emerged with his father, stepmother and half-brother.
The 6-year-old, in front of his father, walked up the plane's steps without looking back; Juan Miguel had call him to the door for a farewell wave.
The planes sped down runway 19 L at 4:42, 42 minutes after the appeals court order keeping the boy in the United States expired, and took off into the slate-gray sky, headed south.
Asked at a White House news conference whether he had any thoughts about sending Elian back to Cuba, President Clinton said, "If he and his father decided they wanted to stay here, it would be fine with me. ... Do I wish it had unfolded in a less dramatic, less traumatic way for all concerned? Of course I do."
Through June 11, the Justice Department had spent $1.8 million on the case.
In Miami, some Cuban-Americans wept, screamed and jeered at the Supreme Court's refusal to block the boy's return to Cuba. Others accepted it quietly.
Dozens of people gathered at the downtown federal courthouse and at the former home of Elian's Miami relatives in Little Havana. Demonstrators carried a long poster with images of Elian and his mother, but police calmly moved them behind barricades.
Elian's great-uncles, Lazaro and Delfin Gonzalez, and Elian's cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, appeared briefly outside the house without comment.
Family spokesman Armando Gutierrez said: "Of course, the family is disappointed. But they believe in God and in the rule of law."
Elian's return was stunning in one respect - how officially reserved it was after months of intense media scrutiny and loud saber-rattling from those who battled over where he would live after being rescued off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day.
To the exiles who have made Miami their home-away-from-home ever since the hated Fidel Castro took over their country 40 years ago, Elian was a baby Moses who would now free Cuba from this evil pharoah. If they couldn't save their homeland from Castro, they would save this one child.
But to the Cuban government, Elian was a baby Che, a hero who would revitalize Castro's aging communist revolution and score a victory over its enemy to the north.
Cuba's enemy was not the U.S. government, which wanted to reunite Elian with his surviving parent, his father, and return him to Cuba. Rather, it was Cuban-Americans, like their nemesis ready for a fresh issue to spark their anti-Castro war, a faded cause that seemed a throwback to the long-ended Cold War.
Elian's Miami relatives, who took the boy into their Little Havana home after his rescue, sued the U.S. government to win asylum for him, triggering a series of court battles that was funded by such exile groups as the Cuban American National Foundation.
But as they lost decision after decision, and especially after armed federal agents seized the boy from their home in a pre-dawn raid April 22, it was increasingly clear that the fight for Elian would be another Bay of Pigs: a loss for the exiles - in part because the U.S. government once again "betrayed" their cause - and a victory for Castrol.
Elian's return meant that the daily harping about his case - the "mesa redonda," or roundtable discussions on television, the frequent mass rallies called by Castro - would end.
"It's politics," sniffed Yaime Osendi, 20, a nursing student who spent yesterday afternoon in a line outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the pseudo-embassy for a country that has no diplomatic ties to Cuba, applying for one of the 20,000 visas Cubans can receive each year to visit relatives in America.
Her father went to Miami 20 years ago as part of the Mariel boatlift, and now, as his daughter sought a visa to visit him, she was reluctant to say much that might harm her chances.
Asked whether she and her father ever talked about Elian, she laughed uproariously and would say only, "It's a controversy with us."
Many families remain divided between Miami and Cuba. "Many of my friends have left, and their family here says, 'Well, he sends us $50 a month,'" said Juan Martinez, 35.
"So what is better, to have $50 to send to your family or to be in Cuba, drinking a beer with your family?"
Lyle Denniston, of The Sun's national staff, and wire services contributed to this article.
Thanks to U.S.
Remarks by Juan Miguel Gonzalez, speaking in Spanish through a translator at Dulles International Airport:
"I would like to thank the North American people for the support they have given us and to the U.S. government. I think that this has allowed me to meet very beautiful and intelligent people in this country, and I hope that in the future this same friendship and this same impression that I have of the U.S. people, that the same thing can become true between both our countries, Cuba and the United States. I am very grateful for the support I have received. I am extremely happy of being able to go back to my homeland. And I don't have words ... to express what I feel."
In English, he added: "We are very happy to be going home. Thank you."