Debunking the Elián Mythology
Elian Gonzalez -- Survivor

by Douglas Dunn

Copyright (c) 2000 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications -- all rights reserved

News Updates:
Congress takes first steps toward easing trade sanctions against Cuba, as the House of Representatives votes to allow sales of food, medicines and other humanitarian interaction with "rogue" nations.

Elián Gonzáles is returned with his father to Cuba, as the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to impose any additional delays or other infringements of this family's right to choose where and how to live.
Congratulations, Juan Miguel and Elián!!!

Like baby Moses rising from the bull rushes rises Elián González from the seas that swallowed his mother, surrounded by his own growing body of mythic legends. It is time we examined the most popular Elián myths with a more critical eye.

"His mother died for his freedom." Let's call this what it was: Elián's mother was guilty of reckless child endangerment, risking the life of her child so she could run off with her boyfriend and take that child away from a loving, attentive father who was actively involved in daily parenting duties. This risky stunt cost her life and almost killed her adorable little boy.

"Government agents seized him from his 'home'." Agents were called because distant relatives, who had never seen Elián for most of his life and were assigned for temporary foster care, decided they wanted to keep the child even after the rightful father was in the country and made it clear they would never willingly allow Elián to be reunited with his father except by force. The temporary placement that was authorized by an INS order was reassigned by that same agency to the surviving parent when that parent arrived in this country and was available. Let's get something clear: Elián was not taken from his home, he was taken to his home.

"Agents used excessive force (with comparisons to Ruby Ridge or Waco)." In Ruby Ridge (on George Bush's watch) and Waco (early in the fledgling Clinton administration), lengthy confrontations ended with gunshots, injury and deaths. Total time of the Elián rescue was less than three minutes, with less than a minute inside the house. No shots were fired; there were no deaths or injuries. This was not excessive use of force, this was an appropriate display of force ready for use if needed. It was necessary and appropriate. Uncle Lazaro had said he would not give Elián up without force, and cousin Marisleysis had threatened the use of guns. An unruly mob swirled outside, committed to resisting any rescue action to return Elián to his father. What would be the reaction of the Clinton/Reno detractors if they had sent in agents unarmed and one had been killed or injured by someone in the house or by the mob outside? The same people complaining about "excessive force" would be complaining that Janet Reno sends public servants into harm's way without protecting them. Certainly the need to rescue a child at gunpoint is unpleasant. It was this very scene that Janet Reno had tried so hard to avoid, as she received numerous complaints that she was being too patient as she repeatedly delayed action to allow more time for negotiation while Lazaro González was holding another man's child in defiance of all law and decency. Yes, the rescue was traumatic even without injury or harm, and blame must be placed squarely on the distant relatives using a child as a political pawn who made this action necessary.

"Castro is using Elián." Okay, well this one is true. By a stroke of tragic luck, a political opportunity fell into the lap of this evil dictator. Surprise -- he's going to take advantage of it. The fact that Castro may use this to his advantage does not mitigate the rights of a loving father, especially juxtaposed with the hypocritical antics of distant relatives also guilty of using this innocent child for their political agenda. This child might be returned to Castro's Cuba, but Elián and his father have both breathed the sweet air of American freedom and will be free to take their message back to Cuba and say whatever they want. These could become two dissidents whose celebrity and hero status render them immune from Castro's persecution.

"Elián is better off in America than Cuba." This is only true if one accepts the premise that a life with more materialistic benefits and creature comforts and lots and lots of TOYS is more important than for a child who has already lost one parent to live with the surviving parent he has already bonded with. The same people who are using this line now are not inclined to say the same thing for refugee children who arrive on boats from Haiti or who come from Mexico, which suggests that their real motive is based on political beliefs rather than any serious concern about what is in Elián's best interests. We must be careful to endorse a precedent that could be used to justify taking the children of poor families and giving them to childless couples who are wealthy. And we must examine one of the key reasons for the poverty in Cuba: while we have trade and diplomatic relations with China, the former Soviet Union, and even our old war adversaries who beat us in Vietnam, as well as countless other ruthless dictatorships around the world, we are prevented from opening up trade or dialogue with Cuba because of the political clout of, you guessed it, the Miami Cubans. If they are really concerned about the poverty Elián will return to, then let them exert some pressure to ease their embargo which causes it.

"Elián's father would defect if he really had a choice; he is being shadowed by Cuban officials and his own family is being held as 'hostages' back in Cuba." Elian's father met with U.S. officials, including Janet Reno (Attorney General) and Doris Meissner (INS Director), the highest immigration officials in the land, with no Cubans present. This would have been a perfect opportunity for him to defect, and both Reno and Meissner would have been bound by American law regarding political refugees to honor his request for asylum. He was definitely able to express his free will. As for the myth about his other relatives being held "hostage," perhaps other less famous refugees might get away with this argument (though it does not seem to have deterred the thousands of Cubans who have defected so far), but it does not hold water in this case. If Juan Miguel were to defect (which he easily could do), and then something were to happen to any of his relatives, Castro would suffer a huge public relations disaster, erasing all the gains he has achieved thanks to the Miami extremists. Dictatorships don't do their dirty work when the light of exposure is shining so glaringly on them. Regarding emigration by Cubans from Cuba to the U.S., it should also be noted that most of those in Little Havana left with the permission of the Cuban government, which issued them travel documents. In fact, while I have no desire to defend Castro, whose regime I do believe to be dictatorial and corrupt, unlike other Communist countries, he has been willing to allow almost anyone to leave who wants to; the key limitations right now are those imposed by the United States, which limits the numbers of new immigrants it will accept. "Uncle Lazaro" himself even traveled here with an exit Visa from Cuba; in fact, when Castro accused him of having a criminal record, Lazaro used his EXIT VISA, issued by Castro's own government, which said he had no criminal record, which is now a requirement to avoid another Mariel boat lift as occurred in 1980 when Castro sent all the criminals here. Additionally, many Cubans in Little Havana regularly travel back to Cuba to visit relatives, one of the few travel exceptions allowed under the current embargo -- funny how the Miami Cubans want to limit everyone but themselves.

"What if Elián were from...?" Some people suspect that if Elián were a Jewish child from Nazi Germany or a girl from Somalia with parents back in that country who wanted her back to perform genital mutilation, that those who respect paternal rights in the Elián case would be less sympathetic. Well, of course! And there is a big difference. A Somali girl being returned to genital mutilation would face a credible threat of physical danger; a Jewish child being returned to Nazi Germany would face the certainty of the ultimate child abuse, DEATH. This goes way beyond merely having a lower economic standard or even a different political philosophy. Whatever valid complaints one might have with Castro's political regime, or whatever economic problems persist (largely the result of the Miami-Cuban sponsored embargo), children are not routinely killed or mutilated. The difference is strictly a dispute about what political system is best. I clearly don't think Castro's has much to offer, but that determination is clearly within the rights of a father to decide that Cuba, with all its problems and limitations, is better than the USA with its rampant crass materialism and children being shot in schools. Again, I would make a different choice than Elián's father, but do we really want to establish the precedent that children can be taken away from parents based on differences of political ideology? What's next? Religion? Will we take a child because someone is too religious? Not religious enough? Wrong denomination? The government denying parental rights based on belief is the ultimate in authoritarian dictatorship. Juan Miguel believes that safety from guns, drugs, school violence and crass materialism (lots and lots of toys) outweigh a democratic government. I don't agree that security outweighs democracy, but I'm not Elián's father and respect Juan Miguel's right to different political opinions. What other grounds based on differing opinions shall we use to decide that children can be taken from their parents completely absent any actual risk to the child. If evidence of such risks of political persecution or physical risk could be demonstrated, then there is no way that Elián would be returned to such an environment. On the contrary, Elián will return to Cuba as a hero, and Castro would never dare to let any harm come to Elián or his father.

"If Walter Polovchak could stay, why not Elián?" Some have cited the precedent of the Walter Polovchak case, in which a cold-war era youth was allowed to stay in the United States instead of being returned to his parents in Moscow. Aside from the fact that cold-war issues are not relevant in today's environment, the Polovchak case is not a valid comparison. The only similarities between Elián González and Walter Polovchak are that they were both young boys being considered for return to parents in Communist countries (Walter's parents returned to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s after living many years in the USA). All of the other relevant factors were different. I supported the decision to let Walter stay here, and still believe it was right because it was so different from Elián's situation. Walter was twelve years old; Elián is six -- a twelve year old is far more able to make his own decisions about his life than a six year old and in matters of custody his opinions will be considered, unlike those of a six year old. Walter had lived his entire conscious life in the United States and had no memories of the Soviet Union, and even his relationship with parents was based on his life with them in America and in Russian culture they would seem quite different and foreign; Elián had lived all of his conscious life in Cuba including daily interaction with his father there, and the only relationship he knows with his father is a Cuban relationship; Walter wanted to stay with his adult sister, part of his immediate nuclear family who he had known well all his life; Elián was forced to stay with distant relatives he had never known before. Walter wanted to stay in America in the only life he had known, not go to a country that was strange and foreign and was old enough to decide that; Elián will be returned to the only life he has known, not stay in a country that is strange and foreign and, if he were old enough to decide that, would probably want to return there with his father and half brother and stepmother.

"If his father loves him so much, how come he didn't go to Miami?" When Elián was rescued, the then-five-year-old immediately gave his father's name and phone number to the authorities, which itself demonstrates his closeness to his father. It was the father, Juan Miguel, who referred authorities to his Miami relatives and recommended them as the temporary guardians until arrangements could be completed for being reunited with his son. He had no reason to come to Miami or anywhere in America at that time, believing at each step that routine processing would result in his son's return, which was the rightful expectation based on both U.S. and international law (as later upheld by the courts). Even after his Miami relatives betrayed his trust by trying to turn Elián into a political cause (and the center of a media circus), he believed that prompt legal action to enforce routine laws would result in his son's prompt return; there was no reason for him to come to the U.S. When the Miami relatives plied their political cause into additional delays and it became clear that Juan Miguel's presence might facilitate an appropriate conclusion, he did come to the U.S. But he did NOT go to Miami, where unpredictable mobs swirled around the house where he son was being (now illegally) held, vowing not to let him leave. It was prudent not to venture into such conditions and risk stirring up unpredictable responses that could cause harm to Elián, himself and others. In any case, he is the father; why should he be the one to have to go into hostile territory, present himself to those illegally holding his son, and beg these usurpers to honor his rightful relationship? ...especially in the face of overwhelming evidence that they would never do so anyway? Juan Miguel wisely left such actions to the authorities, who rescued the boy in an operation of less than three minutes, and without injury or harm to anyone there. After Elián returned with his father to Washington, D.C., the Miami relatives were certainly willing to go there to seek a visit. Of course, because they were the outsiders who should do the asking, and because there was no condition threatening them there. To those who want to compare distant relatives petitioning a father in a safe location to kidnappers holding a child in a hazardous situation, I would ask: now that Elián is in Cuba, do you think these Miami relatives who "love him so much" will go there to see him?

"Congressional Republicans stand for 'family values'." Immediately after the rescue, several political intiatives by Republicans in both the Senate and House of Representatives were introduced seeking investigations or other oppositional efforts, though these have largely gone nowhere in the face of overwhelming support of the action by the general public. This willingness to divide a loving family clearly puts the lie to any claims that congressional Republicans support families or anything that could be called "family values." Any parent whose child was being held by distant relatives who refused a lawful order to give him back would demand federal action, and would be impatient with the many delays while "negotiating" with those who have no standing to make any demands. The real message here is that if Congressional Republicans disagree with your politics, and distant relatives happen to stumble into temporary care of your children, then as far as they're concerned, you shouldn't expect any help from the government to enforce your parental rights or to protect the sanctity of your family.

What next? The Miami Cuban extremists have done more than anyone else to create hardship in Cuba, by demanding an embargo to punish Castro which in reality only punishes their fellow countrymen who haven't had either the desire or the opportunity to leave yet. These same Miami Cubans, who will not tolerate any exemptions for anyone else, make sure that they get whatever travel exemptions they want, so they can visit relatives left behind, further demonstrating by their own travel back and forth a greater level of tolerance by the Cuban government than what they are otherwise willing to admit to. It is clear that the Castro government is cruel, dictatorial, oppressive and corrupt. That is not a point of controversy. The question is, what is our best strategy for dealing with dictators? In all other areas of the world, including Communist China, Korea, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and other dictatorships both small and large, both left-wing and right-wing, we have found that constructive engagement affords the greatest opportunity for promoting positive change. The only thing different about Cuba is that Havana is 90 miles from the Florida coast, and a small band of rabble-rousing extremists in a swing state with enough electoral votes to get both political parties' attentions wants this embargo to stay. It is time that Americans took back control of American foreign policy and made decisions based on what is right, not what is politically expedient. It is time to end the embargo against Cuba and develop serious policies for working with Castro and planning for a future after he is gone.

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Copyright (c) 2000 Douglas Dunn / Word Wizards communications

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