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Excitement That Cuban Boy May Return

April 24, 2000

CARDENAS, Cuba (AP) _ In Elian Gonzalez’s hometown, excitement is building at the boy’s possible return, but neighbors said Monday his welcome will be subdued, if joyful.

``We are going to treat him like any other child in this country,″ said Reynaldo Sardinia, who lives around the corner from the home where the 6-year-old grew up.

At the Marcelo Salado school, where Elian’s empty desk has been turned into a sort of national shrine, director Maribel Reyes Casas gathered the 900 students on Monday to tell them about the child’s reunion with his father, Juan Miguel, on Saturday.

She displayed a new photo of the child smiling with his father in Washington, D.C., saying he seemed happier than when he was in Miami with the great-uncle fighting to keep the child in the United States.

``These are not the eyes we have seen during these five months,″ she said, speaking in the schoolyard decorated with a painted portrait of the boy. ``I have always paid attention to the eyes of Elian.″

About 10 blocks away, neighbors chatting on the sidewalk near the Gonzalez home were still excited about Saturday’s federal raid on the Miami house and said they were eager for his return.

``The U.S. government took a big step forward that was very beautiful,″ said Giralda Diaz Milian, 71, who lives a few houses away from Elian’s family.

``And Reno,″ added Milta Estevez, 65, one of a half dozen neighbors who appeared on the streetcorner to talk excitedly about the boy, referring to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

When news of the raid was broadcast Saturday morning, neighors said they rushed into the street to tell their friends.

``One comrade was so excited she went out in her underwear,″ said Diaz, grinning at her friend Lilia Rosa Ojeda, who covered her head with an arm in mock embarassment.

``I was so happy I ran from the bed,″ Ojeda said, grinning.

Estevez said she was among several neighbors who ran to the two-story concrete house of Elian’s grandfather for one of Juan Miguel’s calls home.

``The boy sent kisses to the whole neighborhood,″ she said.

The boy seemed happy, said Gustavo Fernandez, who was staying in the house during the family’s trips to Havana, 70 miles to the west, and who spoke with the child and his father on Saturday. ``This is our Elian.″

President Fidel Castro has urged Cubans to take a low-key approach to the boy’s return, saying he does not want to continue the five-month media frenzy of his time in Miami or give ammunition to those who claim he is exploiting the child.

Neighbors say they will go along. ``There won’t be festivities,″ Diaz said. ``But we are going to welcome him.″

They also expressed anger at claims by anti-Castro activists in Miami that the boy should not return because children are allegedly brainwashed and mistreated in Cuba.

``There is no misery in Miami?″ asked Estevez.

``I feel happy living here in Cuba,″ insisted Ojeda. ``Here! Here! Here there is freedom.″

``I don’t have any fears that if my chiildren are in the streets, they will be pushed into drug addiction,″ said Migdalini Curbelo, a 28-year-old mother of three.

Parliament President Ricardo Alarcon, who has coordinated Cuba’s efforts for return of the shipwreck victim, said Saturday he has offered Juan Miguel _ a cashier at a recreation park _ a job in Havana as adviser to parliament.

But neighbors said they were sure the father and son would come home to Cardenas.

``They will return here with the family,″ Diaz insisted.

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