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Monday, April 10, 2000 Missoulian Editorial It looks like 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez will be reunited with his father and will return home to Cuba.

Fifteen years from now, Elian will be a young man, maybe ready to use his unique past to create a different future.

Fidel Castro, now 73 and showing signs of senility, will likely be dead by then. He's probably groomed a Communist clone to take over where he left off, but the passing of one repressive leader may open up possibilities for change.

So does the growing up of Elian, who experienced so much at such an early age. His mother and stepfather died trying to float to freedom from Cuba, and Elian was found Thanksgiving Day, clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Florida. Dolphins swam nearby and kept him afloat, according to some.

Six-year-olds remember. Elian could grow up to make a difference in the two worlds he now knows  Cuba and America.

Maybe he will develop a deep understanding about parental kidnapping. In this country, the State Department's Office of Children's Issues helps American parents seek the return of children who have been abducted overseas by a fleeing spouse. In December 1999, the office was trying to find and return about 1,150 children from abroad.

If Juan Miguel Gonzalez turns out to be a model father, maybe Elian will grow up to become an advocate for father-son relationships and bonding. He could return to this country to help: America is sure facing a fatherhood crisis. Nearly four out of 10 children in the United States live in a home without their dad. By some estimates, 60 percent of the children born, like Elian, in the 1990s in this country will spend a significant part of their childhood in a father-absent home.

Elian could carry banners for education, freedom of the press or new technology and how it links the world. He's been tutored at home since he arrived in the United States, a benefit that America's public schools allow or provide when circumstances require it. Every day he's watched a huge press pool assemble outside his relatives' homes. Developments in this country have been beamed instantaneously around the world via computer, fax, satellite and cell phone  even to Cuba, which has no such luxury as freedom of the press or information.

Poverty, immigration reform, due process, the rights of children and parents  just think of all of the issues his short stay has raised for us, for his relatives, for Cuba and the world.

It isn't right to keep Elian in the United States just to give Fidel Castro a poke in the eye. He should be reunited with his father.

Let's hope Elian emerges from his four American months with an understanding of what democracy is, and hope that he develops personal power to make the experience mean something later, in his country or this one.

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