They live more than 3,000 miles away, yet as Cuban Americans in Southern California watch the two countries they love battle for custody of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, it's as if the boy had been rescued off the coast of Santa Monica instead of Miami.
His mother, Elizabet Gonzalez, drowned in a storm along with Elian's stepfather and 10 others in an ill-fated attempt last month to reach the United States from Cuba by raft.
Many of the roughly 70,000 local Cuban Americans are caught up in the political turmoil. A Cuban diplomat whipped through Los Angeles on Friday, looking for support for returning Elian to his father in Cuba instead of keeping him with Florida relatives.
"'This little boy is caught in the middle of a shameful and despicable campaign being waged by a group of people who don't even care about him or how the loss of a loved one destroyed his family," said Cuban diplomat Sergio Martinez, criticizing those in favor of keeping the boy in the United States.
But his remark reflected, generally, the sentiments of both sides of the custody battle that started Thanksgiving morning with the rescue of the boy by the Coast Guard.
Since then, officials in both countries have accused each other of politicizing Elian's tragedy and of being motivated more by their own interests than the boy's welfare.
Martinez was scheduled months ago to visit Los Angeles, and was booked as a guest on a Spanish-language radio show as well as a panel at Loyola Law School. But the political tug of war over Elian put a sharp point on Martinez's intended topic: U.S.-Cuban relations in the post-Cold War era.
Usually content to live mostly quiet lives, in contrast to engaging in the sort of fiery politics practiced in Miami, many Cuban Americans in Los Angeles would not let Martinez's visit go unanswered.
"Fidel [Castro] causes nothing but problems," said Myra, a West Covina woman speaking to Martinez while he was on the air Friday at KWKW-AM (1330). "According to international law, the boy should be with his father. But according to human rights, he should be in a free country."
Protesters against the Castro regime marched outside the CNN offices in Hollywood, hoping the television news network, which is broadcast in Cuba, would relay their thoughts on Elian.
"That child is not going to be free in Cuba," said Rene Cruz, a former political prisoner there who organized the rally. "The sacrifice made by his mother should not be in vain. If he goes to Cuba, he will become an instrument of the government. Castro will hold him up as a victory against the U.S."
Over the air at KWKW and at Loyola Law School, charges were leveled by local Castro supporters against U.S. politicians and Cuban Americans in south Florida who are fighting to have custody of Elian granted to a paternal great-uncle living in the United States.
"They are turning him into a political poster boy," said Jose Estevez, 72, a member of the Los Angeles Coalition in Solidarity With Cuba, which sponsored Martinez's visit.
Estevez was referring to billboards in Miami with Elian's sad-eyed portrait, a heavily publicized visit by the boy to Disney World, and political grandstanding that included New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's recent announcement that he wants Elian to push the button dropping the Times Square ball on New Year's Eve.
"It has all become so stupid," Estevez said.
Few dispute that Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, should have custody of his son under international law. On Monday, Gonzalez was interviewed by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Cuba to confirm that he is indeed the boy's father and that he wants his son back. Gonzalez was divorced from the boy's mother.
Complicating the case, however, is a federal petition for political asylum filed on Elian's behalf by lawyers representing his relatives in Miami.
Lawyers here disagree on the merits of that petition.
"There is nothing to suggest that Elian's mother was a political refugee," said Lydia Brazon, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Humanitarian Law Project, which plans to intervene in the boy's case through the United Nations.
"Hopefully, the judge will throw out [the petition] as frivolous," Brazon said.
But Alex Torres, a family law attorney in Los Angeles, shares a suspicion of anti-Castro Cuban Americans that Gonzalez was coerced into saying he wants his son back.
Martinez said Elian's plight highlights flaws in American immigration policies.