"Dear Fidel..."

By Erik Jay
web posted January 17, 2000

Now this is one is tougher than it looks.

By now most of the civilized world has heard quite enough about the Elian Gonzalez case in Miami, but in case you just got back from a month in the Special Housing Unit, let's recap: On Thanksgiving Day, six-year-old Elian Gonzalez washed up in Florida on an inner tube after escaping the prison isle of Cuba. His mother, step-father and eight other people drowned in the attempt, and Elian has been staying with his paternal great-uncle and -aunt while the "authorities" of two nations wrangle over his fate.

With the propaganda machine cranked up all the way, Fidel Castro has been orchestrating "spontaneous" demonstrations for the boy's return, while Cuban exiles in Miami have been stopping traffic, hiring lawyers, and berating both American politicians and the Cuban dictator. The sides could not be more clearly drawn, the issue any more black-and-white: freedom vs. slavery for a six-year-old boy. And now, the INS, backed by Janet Reno, has decided that Elian must be returned to his father in Cuba.

Would that the solution were equally clear and simple to apprehend. In all the hubbub, all the placard-waving, all the punditry, all the political squall, three critically important aspects of the Elian Gonzalez case have hardly been mentioned -- while the bite-size clichés of the Cuban exile movement and the sputtering libels of Castro's PR directorate are repeated endlessly, clogging the airwaves and the small screen and the net with shallow us-vs.-them blather.

Critically important in all of this -- of primary importance, I should say -- is what the family wants, and what is in the best interests of the child. Secondly, it is of crucial significance that the mother died trying to take her son to freedom in the United States. The third overlooked aspect is the proposed return arrangement. This is where it gets thorny.

We hear from Havana that the father was "close" to Elian despite the divorce, and that the father wants his son back. There are several problems with even this expected development, the first one being that we cannot assume the veracity of anything told us by the Castro regime. Reasonable people can agree that it is reasonable to assume that Elian's father loves him, but the bulk of the proud-papa palaver, served up as a backdrop to the Cuban government's demand for Elian's return, is impossible to judge.

So we cannot trust what Castro says about this case; why should we give any credence to this tinpot dictator about this or anything else? But we certainly know that Elian's mother thought freedom worth dying for -- no one ventures out onto the ocean in an oversized bucket without a cold, clear assessment of the risk. Doesn't the dying wish of the mother, not to mention the step-father, count for something here? It must.

Then, too, I wonder what custody arrangement would ensue from this kind of case in the U.S.; with the mother and step-father dead, wouldn't other family members have standing along with the estranged father? We certainly don't need to further sully the legal proceedings in this case by giving one whit about what Cuban law says on the matter. Please!

Finally, if the father lived in any other country in the world except Cuba and its few allies (North Korea and other national prisons), he would have been on the first plane to Miami. In the case at hand, Elian's father has requested (really? who says? was that a gun at his back?) that the U.S. National Council of Churches return his son to Cuba. Perhaps more slyly than innocently, the State Department has apparently asked the Castro regime to send Dad over to get his son.

This is the good part. The only way that Elian's father would get out of Cuba is if he left behind enough close family members as hostages. What would prevent the father from joining his son in exile were he to come to Miami? Castro doesn't want to let him leave. And that says as much as anyone ever needs to know about what kind of country Cuba is.

Yet just recognizing that Cuba is a prison-state doesn't resolve this matter either. This is a case where we take our analytical cues from F. Hayek and the robot from "Lost in Space" -- insufficient information, aggravated by government interference, leads to "That does not compute!" We just don't know what the father would do -- if he were free to choose. This puts the U.S. government in the position of acquiescing to the wishes of the Cuban government, not the father (since we can't know) or Elian. And this, of course, means that all the warm and fuzzy fretting over "the boy's best interests" isn't Shinola, but the other stuff. This is government to government stuff, pure and simple.

How about this? We'll stand by the decision to return the boy -- but to his father, not to the government of Cuba, which means that the father has to pick him up here. Then he can be asked in a non-coercive atmosphere (assuming no family hostages in Havana, etc.) what he thinks is best for his son.

Certainly there will be people from within and without the Cuban exile community ready to help Elian and his father if the father says he wants to stay in the U.S. as well. Reasonable people can disagree over general immigration policy, the hazards of politicized acculturation, and so on, but the specifics of this case, the heroism and sacrifice that it embodies, makes all of that policy talk moot.

Mom died bringing Son to freedom. Let's give Dad an opportunity to join him. State Department, take this down: "Dear Fidel. You are absolutely right! The boy belongs with his father. We're sending a plane to pick him up. And thanks!"

Erik Jay is editor of What Next? The Internet Journal of Contentious Persiflage which you can subscribe to by sending mail to sublist@erikjay.com with "subscribe" in the subject line.

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