A Boy, Not a Symbol

In 1962, Cuba and the United States nearly plunged the world into nuclear war. Today, most Americans see Fidel Castro, Cuba’s Communist dictator, and his dilapidated island as more of a historical curiosity than a threat to American security or world peace. If anything, our economic boycott of Cuba strikes many citizens as overkill against a doomed outpost of a discredited system. It is no wonder that most Americans find it difficult to understand the passions roused in the Cuban-exile community by the plight of Elián González, the small boy U.S. immigration officials are trying to reunite with his Cuban father. Why the threats of violence and civil disruption if Elián is returned, as the law stipulates he must be, to his parent?

One reason is that the Clinton administration has been pursuing, albeit tentatively, the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba. This policy is not based on any illusions about the nature of Castro’s regime, but on a recognition that the greater the contact between Cuba and the United States, the quicker and more peaceful will be the post-Castro transformation of Cuba. Part of any such normalization process entails the impartial enforcement of the law, and that means respecting the custody claims of Elián’s father.

A good number of Cuban Americans oppose any normalization of relations, arguing that Castro must be opposed in every way possible. Castro is held responsible for the loss of their homeland, for years of forced exile, and for the separation from and the death of loved ones. Historically, official U.S. policy has both cultivated this resentment and frustrated it. Since the end of the cold war, the anti-Castro cause has seemed anachronistic to many Americans, and increasingly to many second- and third-generation Cuban Americans. But as the potentially explosive situation in Miami shows, Castro is not ancient history, nor is the battle against communism over, for many who consider themselves still "in exile."

Elián’s near miraculous survival has become a symbol of all that the first-generation exile community has sacrificed and all that it hopes for. In that context, it is not hard to understand the passions surrounding the child’s fate. The relatives who have cared for him since his rescue off the coast of Florida in November do not want to see him returned to a place his mother died trying to escape. Nor is it easy to dispute the community’s conviction that under Castro Elián’s father is not free to seek what is best for his son. (Coercive pressure from the exile community on Elián’s Miami relatives shouldn’t be discounted, either.) What must be disputed, however, is whether or not resisting Castro requires that Elián be forcibly kept from a father who loves and wants him.

No peaceful resolution of this crisis is possible if commitment to the rule of law is sacrificed on the putatively higher altar of anti-Castroism. In that light, it is impossible to understand how public officials, such as Vice President Al Gore and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, could pander to the most extreme elements in the exile community. As many have noted, Penelas’s statement that local police would not cooperate with the federal government to enforce the law bordered on the sort of local nullification not seen since the South’s resistance to federal desegregation laws. Even worse was Penelas’s suggestion that Attorney General Janet Reno would be responsible for any violence that might occur should the federal government act on the rulings of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Adding to the volatile situation created by Penelas’s statements was Gore’s support for the spurious custody claims of Elián’s Miami relatives. Gore’s willingness to abandon the policies of his own administration in a transparent pitch for Florida’s crucial Cuban American vote confirmed what many of his long-time critics have said: that he seems willing to do almost anything to get elected president.

As we go to press, Elián’s father, accompanied by his current wife and their child, has come to the United States to regain custody of his son. Attorney General Reno, who has shown a calm but firm attitude throughout this crisis, is now pressing Elián’s Miami relatives to comply with the INS ruling and return the boy to his father. "The law is very clear," Reno stated. "A child who has lost his mother belongs with his sole surviving parent, especially with one who has shared such a close and continuous relationship with his son."

Ideally, Juan Miguel González should be given as much time in the United States as he needs to decide what is best for Elián and the family. Doubts that Mr. González has been free to speak his mind should not be scoffed at. Castro has clearly been stage-managing the father’s actions, if not his opinions. Equally obvious, however, is that Elián should not be deprived of his father if his father chooses to return to Cuba. The United States government is not in the business of separating parents and children for political reasons. Opposing Castro does not justify keeping this child from his father.

Published in the 2000-04-21 issue: 
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