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Memories of the boy who helped elect Bush

LITTLE HAVANA, MIAMI — The most famous house in Little Havana, the house of the "Florida relatives," the house where Elian Gonzalez once lived until the Justice Department swooped in and carted him away last April, is quiet.

There's a crucifix on the front wall, the Christmas icicle lights are still hanging from the roof, there's a "Cristo Me Salvo" (Christ Saves Me) sticker on the mailbox, a lock on the front gate, and on each corner of the 50-foot-wide lot two flags — one American, one Cuban — wave silently in the 80-degree breeze.

But over in the corner of the yard, cast aside in the manner of yesterday's newspaper, lies a sign. On it there's a photograph of Elian, the Cuban boy who floated to Florida on a raft from Havana on Thanksgiving Day 1999 and started an international uproar. Pictured beside him is his dog. Next to that is a Bush-Cheney campaign banner from last fall with these words across it: "Un Nuevo Dia." A New Day.

With no one having to say a word, the message is clear.

After all is said and done, after a Florida election so close they had to bring in the chains and measure, the reason George W. Bush is in the White House and Al Gore isn't, can be traced directly to a 7-year-old, 45-pound boy who is now back in Cuba sweating out second grade.

If Elian were still living here, at 2319 N.W. Second St., Al and Tipper would be living at Pennsylvania Avenue.

And how's that for irony? The one decent thing Bill Clinton did — sending a boy back home to his father — is what lost the Democrats the 2000 election.

Normally, Little Havana and surrounding Dade County votes Democratic. Heavily Democratic. In 1996, the Clinton-Gore ticket beat the Dole-Kemp ticket by 107,744 votes out of 527,012 votes cast, a healthy 60 percent advantage that helped Clinton-Gore carry the state of Florida by more than 300,000 votes.

But in the fabled Florida election of 2000 it was a different story. Gore-Lieberman barely won Dade County at all, edging Bush-Cheney by 39,293 votes out of 618,441 cast for a 53 percent advantage. Turnout was up by 10 percent in the county and was especially heavy in the Cuban sections in and around the urban suburb of Little Havana, where exiles and expatriates by the droves expressed their displeasure with the Clinton administration's decision to return Elian to Fidel Castro's Cuba the only way they knew how — with their voting punch.

Bush wound up carrying Florida, and with it the national election, by 537 votes.

They won't soon forget here. To them, Elian was abducted, pure and simple.

Next to the front door of the quiet house on 2319 N.W. Second St. is this notice: "Attention. Missing Child. Last seen 4/22/00 at 5:15 a.m. being removed forcibly by a woman and masked gunmen in a white utility vehicle. Abduction may be related to a conspiracy between the Clinton Administration and the only Communist dictator in the hemisphere."

For the people who live here, it clearly wasn't about El Nio, it was about Fidel Castro and the Cuba they once fled.

The mailman walks by, but he has no mail for the Elian house.

"I thought they'd get lots of mail," I observe.

"I'm not supposed to comment," says the mailman, who then comments.

"The relatives don't live here any more," he says. "Someone else in the family bought the house and now they're thinking of turning it into a shrine of some sorts. I hear they're trying to raise some money."

They might want to call the Bushes in Washington. They should be good for a donation.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to and faxes to 801-237-2527.