In Mexican chat shows he is the "little raft boy," or "balserito." In India, where Cuban sympathies are strong, Elian Gonzalez is the "last victim" of the cold war. In Israel, however, as in many parts of the busy globe, people on the street ask of the shipwrecked six-year-old, "Elian who?"
Yet in world courts of opinion on the Elian deportation case, a clear consensus seems to have emerged: The boy belongs with his father. In editorials and interviews from London to Moscow to Capetown, family rights are seen as trumping the personal liberty of the small boy and the desires of his American relatives and the Cuban-exile community (related story, page 3).
In Russia, China, and South Asia, as well as in Europe, South Africa, and Australia, "natural" laws of family, of bonds between parent and child, of blood and belonging - are extremely powerful. Such sentiments on the Elian case echo loudly in many societies where state legal systems are viewed as unreliable, and civil liberty jurisprudence is underdeveloped.
Moreover, as the Elian case reaches a pause in a dramatic standoff between Elian's uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, and US federal authorities, the common sense on the street in far-flung places has developed a new equation for an outcome: Elian should be reunited with the father, and they should both live happily ever after in the US.
In Moscow, for example, where only 1 in 3 persons had heard of Elian, a young housewife, Alyona Sudarova, said, "From my point of view, the solution to this whole problem is very simple: Let the boy's father come and live in America with him. But they'll never think of that, will they?" Such views of course are anathema among that segment of the global intelligentsia where questioning of American culture and its commercial values are strong. The idea that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, should automatically want to leave his home in Cuba, is seen as insensitive. Moreover, as novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez points out, Elian, a somewhat shy and obedient boy, was "shipwrecked" not in the Gulf of Mexico, but when he landed in a US culture of Disney World and Chicken McNuggets, and where in the first picture sent back to his father he was wearing a combat helmet and wrapped in a US flag.
Still, abroad, parenthood is the primary lens through which the case is seen. "Where is the father? That's where the child should be," says V. Kumar, a female office worker interviewed on a 106 degree F. street in New Delhi.
"I have not met anyone who thinks Elian should live with his uncles in Miami," says Siddharta Vardarajan, an editorialist with the Times of India. Of 23 contributors in an "Elian forum" in a Mexico City newspaper, "Reforma," none felt Elian should end up anywhere other than with his dad.
Typical of dozens of editorials around the world, "The Age" in Australia offered that, "A child whose mother has died needs, in all but the most exceptional cases, to be with his father."
Yet, presumably with an eye to refugees from its sibling North, a South Korean newspaper felt Elian's case does represent an exception: "A natural parent is not always the best person for his child's welfare," says the Korean Times, in a editorial that suggested Juan Miguel Gonzalez have free access to the Cuban-exile community during his stay in the US. "The best judge of Elian's welfare is his mother, who braved death for her son's future in the US."
As an international event, the Elian saga - even during the current standoff - has not grabbed front-page space in anything like traditional US celebrity stories. While O. J. Simpson and the bloody glove, or the fallen Cessna plane of John F. Kennedy Jr. last summer, was standard talk fare among camel herders in Quetta and tea stall owners in Shanghai - the debate over Elian's future is mainly followed by close watchers of international news.
In Israel, where the main discussion is a withdrawal of forces from Lebanon and peace talks with Palestinians and Syrians, Elian got scant coverage. In India, in the midst of a Kashmir crisis and a cricket-fixing scandal, Elian never made page 1.
But this news gap is a contrast, for example, with many British papers, for which human drama is always a story. The political dimension of the Elian case, as seen from abroad, is a somewhat more subtle story. Opinionmakers in Canada, Mexico, and China alike argue that it is "hypocritical" or a double standard for the US not to reunite Elian with his father, even after rulings by the INS and federal courts. They see a Cuban exile lobby group as determining the case, and American politicians who support Elian stay as worried more about local votes in Miami, than US law. Were Elian a Haitian or a Guatamalan, he would be sent home with no fanfare, they argue.
The Chinese official media have not told of the circumstances of Elian's arrival in the US - that his mother and 10 others drowned while trying to escape Cuba last November on a small boat with a bad motor.
Instead, China is evidently using the Elian case as part of an ongoing drive to form a loose coalition of countries trying to contain the US from acting as the world's sole superpower.
In Havana on Friday, in a summit of 77 developing nations, Li Lan Qing, a member of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo, was quoted in the Chinese press as telling Castro, "the cold-war mentality is still lingering on, and power politics are exerting themselves in new manifestations."
By contrast, in other parts of the world, such as Mexico, the Elian case is occurring during a marked shift in Mexican attitudes toward Cuba - away from the unquestioned respect and support for Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution that typified Mexico in the past.
Even as "the little raft boy" appears daily in many Mexican media, a group of respected Mexican intellectuals - the kind of opinionmakers who a decade ago would have never thought to condemn the Cuban regime - sent an open letter to Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo demanding pressure for respect of human rights in Cuba.
US-led economic sanctions against Cuba have been unpopular abroad for years - causing rifts with many US allies, including Canada and European Community states. Opinion writers in Latin America feel the poverty that is experienced in Cuba is partly a result of those sanctions, and that affects their reaction to Elian.
The silver lining of the Elian case, which has created so much anger and huge political rallies in both Havana and Miami, lies in both sides finding a way past the symbolic "one upmanship" that has allowed Elian to become a "political football," as London-based writer Salman Rushdie calls the boy. In Mr. Rushdie's view, the Cuban exile community has sadly, in its flight from the "bigotry" of Cuba, begun to create bigotries of its own. "This is not an American tragedy, it is a Cuban tragedy."
Still, many on the street feel a compromise should be worked out that allows at least the option of the father staying in the US. In Israel, the ambiguity was expressed this way: "If the father wants him, the father's got a right to have him. But maybe it's better for the boy there in the US," said Chaim Rabinowitz, as he handed out candles to passersby before the Sabbath on Friday afternoon.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society