HAVANA — Inaugurating a stage built in front of the American mission in Cuba, 3,000 university students joined Cuban President Fidel Castro and Elian Gonzalez's father for a festive rally calling for the return of the six-year-old boy.
Shortly after the April 3 rally started, news began arriving from Washington that the State Department had decided to approve visa requests for Elian's father, stepmother, baby half-brother, and cousin, as well as a pediatrician and a kindergarten teacher.
"We want Elian! Down with the lie!" protesters chanted after a ceremony inaugurating the "Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Permanent Stage."
The massive concrete and steel construction, located across from the US Interests Section alongside Havana's coastal highway, evidently was built for future protest gatherings.
The park that once stood on the site has been the scene of a long series of marches, rallies, and televised roundtables held almost daily since Dec. 5 to call for Elian's return.
Although some have wearied of the continual protests, the gatherings have been effectively used to keep the public updated on events in the case, to rally Cubans behind Castro and against the Miami exiles, and to involve the nation's children and youth in the national fight for Elian.
The gathering was a celebration of sorts, coming amid reports that the US government was working with Elian's Miami relatives on a plan to turn Elian over to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, when he arrives in the United States.
The US State Department said the visas for Elian's father and five others could be issued as early as April 4, clearing the way for Mr. Gonzalez to visit the United States for the first time since his son was rescued off the coast of south Florida four months ago. Elian, whose mother died in the escape from Cuba, was the only survivor.
The 22 other visas requested by the Cuban government were being reviewed, the department said in a statement.
For months, Gonzalez refused requests by Elian's Miami relatives to go to the United States to claim the boy. His changed stance was being characterized here as a sign of his flexibility.
Under the plan, Gonzalez and other members of the delegation would stay in Washington at the homes of Cuban diplomats while awaiting the results of a federal court appeal by Elian's Miami relatives, who have temporary custody of him and are seeking to block his return to Cuba.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society