The recent surrender of America’s tough line against Cuban communism got me to thinking about various moments in Cuban-American history. Not long ago, I noted the 21st birthday of Elian Gonzalez, the boy returned to his father in Cuba after his mother died in a 1999 attempt to bring him to America in a small aluminum boat.
The talk-show wars were furious during that winter and spring of fifteen years ago. I explained to callers that I shared their wish for Elian to grow up in America, and their lament at the prospect of returning him to the communist dictatorship of his birth.
But my bottom line was this, and it has not changed: The moment his mother died, his father became the sole decision-maker in his life. No matter how much we might have wished for the young lad to grow up enjoying fast food, iPhones and liberty, there was never a basis for denying his father’s right to raise the son taken away from him.
This was a classic battle of conflicting values, in which a natural wish for a son to be returned to his father was complicated mightily by the father’s location in Castro’s Cuba.
This was a disconnect of sufficient scope to cause a large section of America to give a collective backhand to the parental rights of Elian’s father Juan Miguel, and begin rooting loudly for the boy to be raised by his relatives in Miami.
That wish resonated strongly with me. I want every child to grow up free, and here was a chance to score one for our side. But even as callers peppered me with disproportionate hypotheticals (”Would you support returning him to a father in Poland in 1939?”), I could not argue my way around the simple flow chart:
He had two living parents. One died. He goes to the other one. Period. And that’s the way it went.
Unfortunately, it happened at gunpoint, the image seared onto our brains through the photograph of a border patrol agent pointing a submachine gun at a terrified Elian in a closet.
Barack Obama’s complete give-up on decades of moral clarity toward communist Cuba got me to thinking about what Elian’s life must be like today. Then, this week, along comes ABC News with a visit to the young man and the family we returned him to.
I still believe there was no choice in this matter, but it was hard to watch correspondent Jim Avila paint the picture of a young man smitten with Fidel Castro after a childhood filled with indoctrination.
Elian is a hero in the fatherland, a symbol of at least one example of the little island nation standing up to America and winning. He is recently engaged, but still flashes the little-boy face we all remember from the tug-of-war that ended in June 2000 when the Supreme Court rejected his American family’s last effort to keep him in Miami.
Congressional Republicans offered legislation that would have provided a perfect solution— legal status in America for both Elian and his father, thus settling the family issue and providing the boy with a chance to grow up free.
But Juan Miguel was one proud commie, and had no intention of leaving Castro’s paradise behind. He has seen to it that the storied acorn has not fallen far from the totalitarian tree.
In fairness, it might have been a nightmare for Elian’s father to take us up on that offer, which would have been a stone cold defection in Castro’s eyes. They might not have survived the drive to the Havana airport to fly to their new home.
After speaking with Elian, ABC returned to the Miami neighborhood where family members and a vocal anti-communist community fought fiercely to keep him in America.
The house from which he was plucked contains the remnants of a tribute to his mother, who drowned trying to save him. Her picture and a vase with two red carnations face the street.
On that street fifteen years ago, terrible things happened to the people who fought for Elian, according to Tomas Regalado, Miami’s Cuban-born Republican mayor. He should know; he was a radio reporter who covered the whole story along that tense stretch of Northwest Second Street.
“People who were trying to save him were beaten by police; some who went to bat for him ended up in jail. People lost their jobs who stayed in front of the house praying for him,” Regalado told ABC.
Elian says he would like to come to America, to see the sights and thank the relatives who cared for him during his brief American journey.
Not a good idea, says Mayor Regalado, who believes such an event would be “polarizing.”
But no one should hold any breath for Elian’s return to the country that was willing to give him liberty. While he is grateful for the care of his Miami relatives during the fight over his fate, he places a condition on any return visit to see them: they would have to apologize, admitting that they were wrong to try to keep him here.
That won’t be happening. Nor should it.
Even as I hosted show after show, explaining how I could wish for one thing but reluctantly advocate another, I always said that if Elian were my flesh and blood, I would have done exactly what his American family did.
Callers often asked me, “Don’t you want Elian to grow up in a free country?” I replied that I surely did, and that our best hope was for that free country to be Cuba. Castro was 73 at the time, and I held tight to a crazy dream: he would die at some point and the Cuban people, sharpened by decades of American moral clarity, would rise up to demand democracy and liberty.
Well, 15 years later, Castro isn’t dead, but my dream is. President Obama has sentenced Elian Gonzalez and every other Cuban to an indefinite imprisonment under communist rule. He has taught Cuba that they do not need to punt totalitarian rule in order to enjoy normalized relations with the United States and countless American dollars through trade and tourism.
Obama said often that sanctions “were not working.” They surely were. They delivered to the Castro doorstep a daily message from America that every day of red dictatorship would be a day of pariah status. That consistency would have yielded results at some point that would have allowed Elian Gonzalez and his descendants to live free.