Posted on May 01, 2000 in Washington Watch

For several months now Elian Gonzales, the six-year-old Cuban boy rescued off the coast of Florida, has been the all-consuming object of both media and political attention. With over 100 television camera crews permanently set up under tents in the streets surrounding the Miami house of the little boy’s relatives, and massive daily demonstrations both in Havana (demanding that boy be returned to Cuba) and in Miami (demanding that he stay in the United States), the story filled the airwaves and the front pages of U.S. papers.

Not unlike the O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky media fixations of recent years, the Elian Gonzales story represented two realities at the same time. On the one hand, it was a disturbing case of overkill. The “all Elian, all the time” of hard and soft news and television and radio talk shows brought out the worst of media exploitation. Politicians of the right and left and the anti-Castro Miami Cubans and their political allies also over played their hands in using the tragic plight of this poor little boy to their advantage.

On the other hand, the story, as it grew, came to contain many other dramas.

From the beginning, of course, the most prominent subplots of the Elian story were the rift in Cuban-U.S. relations and the hold the Cuban American community has over Florida politics.

Cuba, like Israel, is as much an issue of U.S. domestic politics as it is a foreign policy question. At stake, is not so much opposition to the last communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, as the political clout of the Cuban Americans of Florida.

For example, I recall in 1994 being asked by Jesse Jackson, Jr. to second a motion he introduced at a Democratic National Committee meeting that called for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Since I had weathered the storms of protest when I led the fight at the 1988 Democratic National Convention over recognition of Palestinian rights, I prepared myself for opposition. In fact, the outcry was worse than what I had encountered in 1988. And it was crassly political. The argument against our motion was simple. If it passed, we were told, Democrats would never win another election in Florida. Since that state is the nation’s fourth largest and is an important swing-vote state in national elections, the argument of the party leadership won. What I discovered was that no discussion of the merits of the argument was possible. Minds were closed when it came to politics.

The initial reaction to the Elian Gonzales case reflected this logic. Without exception all the major presidential candidates sided with the emotional anti-Castro sentiment of Florida’s Cuban American organizations. For them this was not an issue of a little boy whose mother had drowned and who was now separated from his father who loved him and wanted him to come home. It was about Castro, Communism and the Cuban-American vote.

For Cuban-Americans, the case of Elian Gonzales was transformed into a larger symbol representing their lives and fears. For many, it came to represent their deepest yearnings, their collective trauma, their hatred for Castro and their alienation, even from the country they adopted as their new home.

Here, too, the reality of the story was lost–or rather it was transformed into a strange set of religious mythologies. For 50 years these Cubans have wanted to return. For 50 years they had been separated from their families. Many Cuban Americans were sent by their parents to the Untied States, as children, to escape Castro. They never overcame this trauma. Their hatred of Castro festered and dominated their political discourse. Time and again their hopes of overthrowing the regime in Havana were dashed and time and again they had to fight off the despair of never being able to return.

In many ways this situation is an aberrant one. One million strong, many Cuban Americans are clustered in a Miami ghetto, “little Havana,” of their own making. While participating in American life and politics (they are generous donors to U.S. politicians, they vote in large numbers and they hold elective office), they operate at times more like an exile community than an immigrant community. Their bodies are in the United States, but their hearts and minds are still in Cuba.

In this context, Elian, the little boy, became transformed in the minds of many Cuban Americans into a religious symbol. Some referred to him as the “miracle child.” He was the “Cuban Moses,” rescued from the water (as Moses had been taken from the stream) and “brought by God to save his people.” Other myths soon developed to fit various religious images into the story. His mother “died so he might be free,” he was “saved by dolphins” who held him up in the water. A “fisherman” found him. That those symbols were forced (for example, the so-called “fisherman” was, in fact a house-cleaner, who had gone fishing, that day, for the first time in his life) did not matter. So great is the collective trauma and resultant alienation of the community–that these stories were believed. In the end, Elian was transformed into a symbol who represented something much larger than himself.

In part, the resistance to give Elian up and the hysterical reaction of many Cuban Americans to his seizure by Federal Marshals can be explained by this religious-like revival that attended his presence in “little Havana.” There were nightly demonstrations and chanting that accompanied Elian’s appearances in his uncle’s yard. All-night vigils were held and many collapsed from emotion when he was taken away. What all this makes it clear, is that not only Elian, but many in the “little Havana” community have deep psychological scars that require counseling.

What also became increasingly clear, as the story played itself out, was that not only were Cuban American frustrated, but that other Americans were becoming more and more frustrated with Cuban Americans politics. The more they functioned as an exile community, the less Americans sympathized with their cause. Polls are now showing that while the overwhelming majority of Cuban Americans wanted Elian to stay in Florida, three-fourths of African Americans and non-Hispanic Whites wanted him to be returned to his father. A large majority of Americans also express resentment with the behavior of the Cuban Americans and for the first time by a margin of 54 to 31 percent most Americans now want to see diplomatic relations established with Castro’s Cuba.

Another troubling sub-plot to the entire story is the double standard in U.S. immigration law that many saw played out in the Elian case. Because of the political clout of the Cuban Americans and the politics of anti-communism, Cubans rescued off the coast of Florida receive treatment quite different than that of other refugees. As one Congressman noted pointedly “If Elian had been a black Haitian in an inner tube, he’d have been on the next plane to Haiti.”

In a normal situation there would be no question that this child belonged with his father. The fact that his Miami family members applied for custody and then had the temerity to have the six-year-old sign an asylum appeal to remain in the United States is, at best, shocking. Even more disturbing is that some leading U.S. politicians are supporting this appeal and the case of the Miami relatives.

It appears that when the “family values” espoused by some politicians clashed with the anti-Castro politics of a powerful voter group–family values lost out. And apparently so did reason. It defies both law and logic to assume that a six-year-old could be found competent to file for asylum against the wishes of a parent–and yet that is what the lawyers for the Miami family and a number of leading Congressmen and Senators are currently arguing and that is what will be played out in the courts.

The last important sub-plot to this story was the issue of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s use of force to, in Attorney General Janet Reno’s words, “safely extricate the boy” from the home of his relatives. This issue has become the major topic of debate during the last week.

What has been fascinating are the contortions both sides of the debate have gone through to defend their positions. The public was evenly divided. Forty-nine percent opposed the force used by Federal Marshals, 48 percent approved of the action. On the other hand, by two to one the public felt that the behavior of the Miami family left the government no other choice to reunite the boy with his father–a goal supported 73 to 16 percent.

But surprisingly, liberals and immigrant rights groups, who are normally quite averse to the INS and use of force, found themselves defending the government’s actions. While conservatives and advocates of “law and order” decried the move and described it as “police-state tactics.” New York’s Mayor Rudolf Guiliani, for example, defended his police department when they put 40 bullets into an unarmed African immigrant. But in the case of Elian, he joined the Republican chorus denouncing the Clinton Administration’s use of force.

These were but some of the sub-plots that were played out in the story of Elian Gonzales. In the end, however, when all of these levels are pealed away, we are left with the tragic reality that the Elian story represented in the first place. He is a very little boy whose mother literally kidnapped him to take him on an unsafe raft in treacherous seas to escape to the United States. She died and he quite remarkably survived. He was exploited by the media, by politicians, by the Cuban American community and by the government of Cuba for six long months. He was made into a political icon and a symbol of protest. But what, in fact, he is, is a little boy who needs to be parented and healed. He needs to be able to come to deal with the loss of his mother and he needs to be free from exploitation, so he can have what is left of his childhood back again.

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