Doing Right by Elian,
His Family, and Cuba
by Jerome F. Winzig
Most of the parties seem to be talking past each other in the case of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy who was found adrift in the Atlantic Ocean on November 25. It is time to state clearly the principles that should determine what happens to young Elian.
First, parental rights are clearly of primary consideration when determining the future of a child, particularly one who is six years old. However, parental rights are not absolute. State laws across the United States spell out procedures for relinquishing or terminating parental rights, and for determining proper custody for a minor child. Disputes about parental rights and custody are generally determined in family court. Since Elian's mother brought him to the state of Florida before she died, his case belongs in a Florida family court.
Second, the concerns expressed by many people about growing up under a totalitarian dictatorship are not inconsequential. This is not about something trivial, such as whether Elian can go to Disneyworld or not, as some in the media have portrayed it. Rather, should Elian's father be able to force him to return to a society where milk is rationed, children are expected to join the Young Pioneers, and people's lives are tightly controlled by a Communist government headed by the same dictator for forty years?
Third, whatever legal body adjudicates Elian's case needs to acknowledge that determining the true intentions of Elian's father are almost impossible as long as he lives under a totalitarian dictatorship. There are reports that in the past, Elian's father also wanted to flee to the United States. Today, however, he would not dare to say so in the face of the massive, Castro-orchestrated demonstrations and media events that are going on in Cuba over this case. In contrast, while members of Elian's family in the United States may face pressure from their families and from the Cuban-American community, they face no pressure at all from the U.S. government, which at times seems openly hostile to their concerns about Elian's welfare.
Fourth, the United States government should offer visas to Elian's father, grandparents, and other immediate family members, so they can all attend family court sessions in Florida. In addition, to ensure Elian's father can make free decisions, the United States government should also state clearly and in advance that it will offer asylum to Elian's father, grandparents, and other immediate family members should they choose to request it while in the United States.
Fifth, Elian's case is distorted by the United States' 40-year embargo against Cuba. The United States government should immediately drop its embargo, since it tends to make enemies of the Cuban people rather than Fidel Castro. The embargo keeps Cuba isolated, depresses an economy already pummeled by 40-years of Communism, and helps prop up a bankrupt, failed dictatorship that is on its last legs. Paradoxically, we have an enormous trading relationship with China, even though it too is governed by a dictatorship, in the hope that free trade and relations with the rest of the world will help open China up to democracy and the rule of law. Why can't we do the same with Cuba?
Sixth, the United States needs to recognize that much of our policy towards Cuba is fighting the wrong battle. Our past support of Fulgencio Batista, Cuba's previous dictator until 1959, helped fuel the Communist revolution and Castro's rise to power. We need to begin to treat the Cuban people as our neighbors and as equals, providing them with the same access to free trade that is making so much difference in people's daily lives in other countries all over the world.
If the INS simply returns Elian Gonzalez to Cuba on its own, as it seems intent on doing, then everyone will lose. A little boy will be sent back to live under Communism. His father's true wishes will not be heard in an open forum. Castro's dictatorial grip on Cuba will be strengthened. The Cuban people will continue to be punished by the United States' unending embargo. And the United States government will lose yet another opportunity to provide clear, principled moral leadership.