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It is a very long way from Japan to Miami, both physically and psychologically. For that reason, the brouhaha over little Elian Gonzalez that engulfed the United States this week has been a bit mystifying to people here. And yet perhaps distance lends a useful perspective.

Six-year-old Elian was one of just three survivors when a boatload of Cuban refugees was shipwrecked off the Florida coast last November. His mother drowned. Elian was rescued by fishermen and delivered by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to relatives, also refugees, who lived in Miami — a sensible temporary arrangement. Then his father, who had been divorced from Elian’s mother, was contacted in Cuba and said he wanted his son to come home. The INS determined that Mr. Juan Miguel Gonzalez had been an exemplary parent and agreed that Elian belonged with him. Who would argue?

Many people, as it happens. This was not just any little boy, or any father. They and their Miami relatives were also players in a political drama — more of a tattered sideshow, really — that had begun before most of them were born and that effectively transformed them all from human beings into types and symbols of the Cold War. No matter how eloquently Cuban President Fidel Castro and U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke of keeping politics out of it, this was politics and had been from day one. If it wasn’t, why were political leaders talking about it? Politics was what drove Elian’s mother to flee Cuba, still tottering along under a communist dictatorship after 41 years, in search of a better, freer life in the U.S. for herself and her son. Politics is the reason the Gonzalez family had relatives in Miami in the first place.

And politics, as raw and bitter and partisan as anything seen in the U.S. since Mr. Clinton’s impeachment, was what drove those relatives to defy the U.S. government’s decision to return Elian to his father, i.e., Cuba — until last Saturday, when the exasperated government knocked their door down and seized the little boy at gunpoint, reuniting him with his father after a five-month separation. The reunion, by all accounts, has been a happy one. Most Americans, according to polls, think it was about time. Mr. Castro, to the Clinton administration’s comic discomfiture, loved it. But the Miami relatives and their supporters — not just the Cuban-American community in Florida, but the largely Republican, anticommunist bloc nationwide — continue to vilify both Elian’s father and the government and to persist with outlandish legal efforts to keep the child in the U.S.

This is the mind-set that most puzzles and disturbs distant observers. Attempts have been made to portray Mr. Gonzalez as an abusive husband and father, but in the absence of evidence, the real objections to his assuming his rights and responsibilities as Elian’s sole surviving parent have become clear. Mr. Gonzalez is an “atheist” and a “communist” who intends to take his son back to Cuba, even turning down material enticements — a job, a car, a house, cash — to stay in America. Conspiracy theorists cannot believe Mr. Gonzalez actually wants to leave; he is brainwashed and hamstrung, they say, by Cuban agents, by Mr. Castro himself. Those who admit that he had numerous opportunities in Washington to freely request asylum say that his very failure to do so makes him an unfit parent. For these people, the Cold War still rages, and poor, decrepit Cuba, with its aging, tin-pot dictator, is a simulacrum of the gulag.

To outsiders, though, Mr. Gonzalez appears to be one of the few characters in this drama to have acted throughout with integrity (much-criticized Attorney General Janet Reno is another). His refusal to be bought is refreshing, and his skeptical take on life in “the land of the free” is at least understandable. There are many people to whom parts of Miami look more unpleasant — and more intimidating — than Cardenas, Cuba. Either way, it is Mr. Gonzalez’ business where he lives, and where his children live, too. As to the other charge, Mr. Gonzalez has not actually said he is an atheist, but the issue hardly bears on his paternal fitness. Even American atheists are allowed to raise their own offspring. Mr. Gonzalez may well be as repulsed by the gaudy religious trappings that his relatives have hung on his son’s tragedy as they are by his alleged godlessness.

From here, it looks like a no-brainer: Elian should go home with his family. Once the U.S. courts have cleared the way for that, as one hopes they do, two good things may be seen to have emerged from this trauma: The demagogic Cuban-American community will have lost some political credibility; and Havana and Washington may have moved closer to shutting down the obsolete sideshow that spawned it in the first place.

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