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Havana hails grandmothers

Elian Gonzalez's grandmothers arrived back in Cuba on Sunday without the child they had hoped to bring home, but they were greeted as heroes nonetheless with an enormous government-organized parade through the streets of the Cuban capital.

"It's very sad," said the boy's maternal grandmother, Raquel Rodriguez, breaking down in tears before President Fidel Castro and 1,700 schoolchildren who greeted the grandmothers at Havana's Convention Palace.

"You are here and Elian cannot be because we could not bring him," she said.

Before leaving Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington on Sunday, Elian's paternal grandmother, Mariela Quintana, said the boy would never be happy growing up in the United States "because he grew up in Cuba."

"He is a Cuban boy. He has a father. He has four grandparents and an entire family back there."

The boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, embraced the women as they stepped off a business jet at Jose Marti International Airport, then rode with them in a convertible as they waved at hundreds of thousands of people holding Cuban flags in a scene reminiscent of the 1998 greeting for Pope John Paul II.

After an hourlong, 16-mile trip through Havana by motorcade, the two women wept as the children greeted them with cheers of "Free Elian!" at the Convention Palace.

Flanked by their extended families, the women heard children chant poems and sing songs in their honor.

Government television and radio stations, which broadcast the event live, had repeatedly announced the route of the "caravan of dignity," and newspapers published schedules for special buses to take people to it. The event had been announced less than 24 hours before it took place.

Even the national soccer championship game, which had been scheduled for Sunday in Havana, was postponed for a week so players and spectators could attend the event.

The grandmothers were returning after "brave and extraordinary work in the United States, overcoming great obstacles and transmitting a persuasive message to the U.S. people," said a government statement published on the front pages of all Havana newspapers Sunday.

Elian was found floating in an inner tube off the Florida coast Nov. 25 after a boat wreck that killed his mother and 10 other people. He has been staying with a great-uncle in Florida ever since. His Florida relatives are seeking to keep Elian in the United States, while his father and other relatives in Cuba are fighting to get him back.

The boy also is caught in the midst of a major propaganda battle between Castro's communist government and Cuban-American exile groups. Some of the exile groups have complained that the boy should not return to his father because it would be a victory for the Cuban leader.

The struggle over Elian has become one of the largest government campaigns in recent Cuban history, with daily events, some drawing massive crowds, to demand the child's return to his father.

Since the two grandmothers left Havana on Jan. 21, the government has given increasingly massive television and newspaper coverage to their tour of the United States, crediting them with helping sway U.S. public opinion toward Elian's return.

The women _ until recently obscure homemakers from the provincial city of Cardenas _ have found themselves on worldwide television meeting congressmen, senators and Attorney General Janet Reno.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has ruled Elian should be returned to his father. But officials are awaiting the outcome of a federal court challenge filed by Miami relatives before trying to return the boy.

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler will hear arguments Feb. 22 on whether the Miami relatives' lawsuit should be dismissed.