How Elian's Saga Turned Into a Sad Soap Opera

Cubans love a torrid drama — and the sides in the Elian Gonzalez case are presenting very different versions.

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Soap opera is a staple of Cuban popular culture on both sides of the Florida Strait, which may be why politicians on both sides of that divide are spinning the tale of Elian Gonzalez as a saga of deceit, betrayal and manipulation. The characters are the same, but there are two mutually exclusive scripts: For Havana, it's the story of a boy kidnapped by his own relatives under orders from anti-Castro zealots; in Miami it's told as the tale of an evil dictator forcing a family to demand the return of their son to a prison island, even though they know he'd be better off in the land of the free. The tragedy for Elian Gonzalez — and his family in both countries — is that these competing scenarios are shaped by political forces beyond their control.

"The extent to which the different sides of Elian's family are being manipulated by the opposing political forces was abundantly clear during the meeting between the boy and his grandmothers," says TIME Miami Bureau chief Tim Padgett. "It was a sad moment, suggesting that reconciliation between different branches of the family was unlikely because they're representing more than just themselves." The boy's immediate future, however, will be decided in the courts and on Capitol Hill, where the histrionics of both camps may have limited effect. The Justice Department moved Friday to dismiss a federal lawsuit by Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez to overturn an order to return the boy to Cuba, while support appeared to be waning on Capitol Hill for a bid to head off the Justice Department by rushing through legislation granting citizenship to Elian. No matter where the boy ultimately resides, though, the battle between Fidel Castro and his Miami nemeses will continue — but the Gonzalez family as a whole will be forced to live with the scars, none more so than Elian. And the family's tragic tale is rendered epic by the fact that it may be an allegory for the experience of the Cuban family as a whole.