HAVANA -- Fidel Castro appeared to be taking a huge risk when he sent Juan Miguel Gonzalez to the United States to retrieve his 6-year-old son Elian.
Gonzalez's Miami relatives said Elian's father had once talked of moving to the United States. Gonzalez himself had said Cuban exiles in Miami had offered him money to defect and raise his boy in America.
But Cuba experts say Castro's risks were minimal. Even if Gonzalez once considered emigrating to the States, he obviously now feels beholden to Castro and a nation of 11 million that made Elian a boy hero by rallying thousands of people daily chanting for his return.
''I don't think Castro was running any particular risk,'' said Wayne Smith, a Cuba scholar who served as chief U.S. diplomat in Havana during the Reagan and Carter administrations. ''I think that Castro is absolutely confident that the father wants his son and wants to return to Cuba.''
Still, there was probably some risk involved, said Susan Eckstein, a sociology professor from Boston University who specializes in the study of Cuba.
''You don't know what the father could be promised,'' said Eckstein. ''If the Cuban American community worked so hard on Elian, it could work just as hard on the father.''
But instead of defecting when he arrived in Washington on Thursday, Gonzalez thanked the Cuban people and its leader for unflagging support.
Castro, said Gonzalez, ''has been like a brother giving me advice and support through our long days of pain and uncertainty.''
Gonzalez's Miami relatives and their supporters for months claimed that Elian's father would not go to the United States to reclaim his boy because Castro's government feared he would stay.
The father said he merely wanted assurances that his boy would be returned to him quickly. ''Miami Cubans would just entangle me in their political games,'' Gonzalez said in mid-January, refusing to travel to the United States until he felt sure he would get his son.
The U.S. government provided Gonzalez with those assurances several days before he left.
Smith said he wishes that Gonzalez had come to the United States months ago, thinking that an earlier trip may have helped wrap up the international custody dispute earlier.
And he was glad that someone, apparently American attorney Gregory Craig, persuaded Cuban officials to drop their insistence that Gonzalez travel only if accompanied by an entourage of 27 other people, including a dozen first-graders from Elian's school in Cuba.
''Castro often does not have a good sense of appealing to the American public,'' said Smith. ''The idea of bringing all of those people was not playing out well here.''
What has played out well, Smith said, are the images of Gonzalez, his wife and his photogenic 6-month-old son -- a young, attractive family on a mission to retrieve a beloved son.
''What is interesting about all this is that it shows that the Cuban revolution has not done away with the importance of family,'' said Eckstein. ''And that sometimes family is more important than politics.''
Gonzalez probably has less reason to defect than many average Cubans.
A member of Cuba's Communist Party, he and his family are longtime supporters of Castro -- even more so since the Cuban leader has made Elian's return a national campaign.
And because Gonzalez works in the tourism industry in the resort of Varadero, just outside his hometown of Cardenas, he has access to much coveted U.S. dollars, allowing him to live more comfortably than many here.
Gonzalez also has seemed disgusted by what he says is the commercialization of his boy, and the capitalist excesses poured on Elian just days after his rescue at sea. There was a well-publicized trip to Disney World, and televised images of the child surrounded by expensive toys such as a motorized dune buggy and a giant Mickey Mouse doll.
Less than two weeks after Elian was rescued off the Florida coast, Gonzalez denounced the ''extremist Cuban-American Mafia,'' accusing exile groups of offering him $2 million to move to Miami and stay with Elian there.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez's Miami relatives insinuated that he didn't care about Elian because he didn't hop on a U.S.-bound plane immediately to reclaim the boy. In recent weeks, attorneys for the relatives in Miami even put forward the idea that Gonzalez was an unfit father.
''They've been stabbing him in the back,'' Smith said. ''The whole idea of them inviting him to have dinner at the house in Miami is absurd.''
On the Net:
Miami relatives: http://libertyforelian.org
Cuban government Spanish-language site: http://www.cubaweb.cu
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