Will Elian Return to the U.S.?

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Elian Gonzalez watches the festivities at the opening of a new museum in Cuba

Just when the media appears to have squeezed every last sneer of punditry out of the Gary Condit story, a familiar savior shimmers on the horizon of the summer news drought: The Return of Elian. TIME has learned that Cuban officials are weighing whether to send young Elian Gonzalez to next month's United Nations assembly on children in New York. The special session is to be attended by more than 80 heads of state, including President George W. Bush and possibly Cuban President Fidel Castro. But the Cubans are also planning to send a delegation of children, and Cuban officials tell TIME that Elian's name is under consideration by the foreign ministry as a possible participant. It is not clear, at this stage, whether sending Elian has been proposed to his father, but Juan Miguel Gonzalez is an enthusiastic Castro supporter and has allowed the boy to join the strongman in public on a number of recent occasions.

The seven-year-old, whose fate had once been the focus of an emotionally wrenching seven-month political battle between his father in Cuba and his anti-Castro relatives in Miami, is now happily ensconced with his playmates and family in his hometown of Cardenas. Initially, Castro made good on his promise not to turn the boy into a propaganda icon, and left him to reconstruct the pieces of his life in the sleepy coastal town. But the 75-year-old strongman appears to be finding the temptation to make propaganda around Elian too hard to resist — in July, he had the boy join him on the dais at a communist rally for the island's children. He also visited with Elian to congratulate him on completing first grade, and later inaugurated a museum in Cardenas to the struggle over Elian's fate. Few Cubans outside the politburo get that much face time with their Maximum Leader.

Elian has been something of a lucky charm to the aging revolutionary. The exiles' frenzied attempts to keep Elian in Miami had played extremely well for Castro at home. And they had been a double disaster for exile activists, who ultimately lost a battle in which they succeeded only in alienating their cause from the American mainstream. The idea of sending Elian to New York may look like another propaganda bonanza to Havana — it would get up the noses of the exile community once again. Even if it didn't, Castro would hope to turn Cuba's best-known grade-schooler into a poster child of vitality for his wheezy revolution — just as the exiles had done for their cause after the boy was rescued off Miami on Thanksgiving Day two years ago.

If Castro does attend, Elian's presence would also expand his ability to embarrass President Bush, who owes a substantial political debt to Florida's anti-Castro activist community. The President will have a hard enough time dodging a potentially uncomfortable encounter with the Cuban leader, who managed to buttonhole President Clinton at a U.N. event last Fall. But Elian's presence would intensify the media focus on the event, making attendance more even more uncomfortable for President Bush with some of his core constituencies. On the other hand, allowing a Cuban propaganda stunt to keep him away from a conference he'd planned to attend would hardly help the Bush administration's deteriorating image as an international citizen.

But attempting a sequel to the propaganda bonanza that was Elian I may backfire on the Cubans. It was, after all, the image of a child's emotional life being torn apart by politics that made the anti-Castro forces the losers last time around. Bringing the boy back into the political limelight in New York might well play the other way. Or, to put it in culinary terms, you can't reheat a soufflé.

With reporting by Stuart Stogel/United Nations