IT'S AROUND LUNCH TIME when someone in the crowd of protesters outside Elian Gonzalez's house thrusts a Fidel-on-a-stick into the air. It is a fatigue-clad dummy with a Castro mask taped to its head. The dummy is wearing a stuffed woman's bra and has a frayed cigar in its mouth. It floats above the crowd for an instant. Suddenly a man reaches up and grabs at the dummy. He is intent on hurting it. Within seconds he has ripped the Castro mask off and shredded the bra. The dummy comes down. Even in effigy, Fidel doesn't play well in this crowd.

It is Thursday, April 13, the day Janet Reno has selected to end the long Elian Gonzalez saga. The attorney general has given Elian's Miami relatives until 2:00 P.M. to deliver the boy to an airport outside Miami. If the family doesn't comply, federal marshals are prepared to remove him by force. The crowd is here to prevent that from happening.

Thousands of people have shown up. Police cruisers and fire trucks have blocked off streets around the Gonzalez house for blocks in every direction. There is no traffic, but lots of activity. In the press encampment, Cuban-born actor Andy Garcia is giving a television interview, trying to choke back tears as he explains why the feds should not take Elian from Miami. Across the street, singer Gloria Estefan is standing at a microphone, urging the crowd to remain calm but vigilant. (Estefan's father, a onetime bodyguard to Fulgencio Batista, was captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion and imprisoned by Castro.) On the other side of the barricades, an elderly woman is passing out flyers with a picture of Bill Clinton and Al Gore locked in a homosexual embrace. The air is filled with cigar smoke. A radio is blasting Little Havana's newest top ten hit, a salsa tune about Elian. The neighborhood feels like the scene of a carnival, though one with an unusually large number of television cameras.

The day's truly surreal events, however, seem to be unfolding in Washington. Attorney Greg Craig, whose last client of note was Bill Clinton, has convened a press conference to lecture America on the importance of the rule of law. Unnamed "officials" at the Justice Department are warning that Elian's staged videotaped statement, released this morning by his Miami relatives, is a personal offense to them, and will only harden their resolve to return the boy to Cuba. Elian's father, meanwhile, is caught on camera flipping the bird to protesters outside the Cuban Interests Section. Miami television stations replay the Juan Miguel tape again and again; the local ABC affiliate describes his extended middle finger as "an international gesture that needs no explaining."

Back in Little Havana, the crowd is growing larger. Yet it remains almost entirely Cuban. This makes sense. In Miami, reaction to the Elian story breaks down neatly along ethnic lines. The vast majority of Cubans in the city think Elian should stay. The vast majority of everyone else thinks he should go. Polls show that more than 90 percent of blacks in Miami believe the boy should be sent back to Cuba right away, by FedEx if necessary. It's hard to read this as anything but a reflection of larger ethnic tensions in the area. The theme of the day on local English-language talk radio seems to be, "Why have we let Those People turn our city into a banana republic?" Virtually every caller sounds angry and confused.

Miami's Cuban population is of course angry and confused, too. Some of the policemen sent to Elian's house to maintain order have trouble concealing their feelings about the case. "My grandparents came from Cuba," explains Angel Calzadilla, a uniformed Miami cop who is milling about the press area. "They instilled in me from when I was little that communism is evil. To see this child returned to that is heartbreaking." Calzadilla doesn't say so, but it is clear that he doesn't plan to lift a finger to help Janet Reno. How many federal marshals would it take to get Elian out of his uncle's house? a reporter asks. Calzadilla smiles. "I think 'shit-load' is the official term," he says.

Around noon, the crisis ends. Janet Reno gives up. The public, she says in a televised statement, "will not see marshals" at Elian's house. "If we are compelled to enforce our order," the attorney general explains, "we intend to do so in a reasonable, measured way." In other words, We won't dare try to make good on our threats to go in and get the boy.

Reno ends her statement with more talk about the law and her willingness to enforce it, but as far as the crowd in Little Havana is concerned, it is just air. The attorney general of the United States promised to remove Elian from Miami today. The protests forced her into a humiliating frenzy of backpedaling. It is that simple. A man next to the barricades grabs a megaphone. "Janet Reno called it off because we were here," he shouts. "Because we were here."

An hour later, an appeals court in Atlanta issues an emergency stay, which will temporarily prevent Elian from being returned to Cuba. It's not a total victory, but at the moment, it is pretty close. In the front yard of their little house, Elian's relatives are celebrating. Delfin Gonzalez, one of the great uncles, is waving to the crowd and grinning. A burly cop standing nearby is grinning, too. A hundred cameras are watching, but the cop can't contain himself. He throws his arms around Delfin Gonzalez and gives the uncle a bear hug.

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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