"Elian, Take Me With You"
A few days before last Thanksgiving, a group of Cubans set out for the United States on a homemade raft. Such incidents are far from uncommon these days. Far from uncommon, too, was the fate of these passengers, all but three of whom perished at sea. When their ramshackle boat fell apart, two of the three survivors managed to swim to shore. The third, a five-year-old named Elián González, clung to an inner tube until he was picked up by some fishermen who fortunately happened by. On their own initiative, the rescuers took the boy to a hospital on the U.S. mainland, where he was treated for shock. Immigration authorities then released him to relatives in Miami.
In due course it was discovered that little Elián, like many Cuban children, was the product of a broken home. After his parents’ divorce several years ago, his mother had taken up with the male companion who was accompanying her, and who perished with her, on the dangerous voyage across the Florida straits. Nor was that all. Elián’s father appeared to be a member in good standing of the Cuban Communist party and an employee at one of the tourist hotels in Havana—which is to say, he belonged to that privileged Cuban elite with access to dollars. Not unnaturally, the father wanted his son back, and said so, though in language so intemperate and so politically charged as to suggest that he was being driven by something more than just a father’s anguish.
Still, the issue at first seemed fairly straightforward. Should not a child who has lost his mother be returned to the custody of his father, even if the father suffers the misfortune of living under a highly repressive political system? American family law certainly seemed to be on the side of Señor González, and the U.S. courts may yet find on his behalf. But what looked early on like a simple child-custody case—with some additional glitches relating to peculiarities in our immigration laws—has become far more than that: the centerpiece of the sharpest political conflict between the United States and Cuba since at least the Bay of Pigs.
In Cuba itself, the case evidently electrified opinion (at least at the beginning). For days and even weeks, work on the island appeared to halt as Fidel Castro convoked huge demonstrations in front of the former U.S. embassy in Havana—the building that now houses the U.S. interests section—to demand the boy’s return. By all accounts, the episode managed to unite Cubans of the most varied political tastes, producing a froth of nationalist resentment and leading all but the most dissident members of society to close ranks behind their aging dictator. For his part, Castro—who had had a particularly bad political year in 1999—clearly regarded the Elián case as a gift from the gods; according to the New Yorker‘s Jon Lee Anderson, the aging strongman could hardly stop talking about it. For the first time in many years, Anderson suggests, Castro felt wholly and completely in touch with public opinion in his tattered and shattered country.
Meanwhile, in Miami, the Cuban-American community responded with equal passion, demanding that the boy be allowed to remain with his relatives in the United States and angrily threatening to close down the city and block traffic on the highways of Dade County if their wishes were not respected. Some of the comments uttered by demonstrators in Miami—which the American press, particularly the New York Times, relayed with relish and in rich detail—were almost as anti-American in tone as those being shouted by Castro’s rent-a-crowd in Havana. For the first time ever, the Cuban community of Miami found itself sailing against the prevailing political winds in the United States, where a solid majority was reported to agree with Elián’s father and, by extension, with the position of the Cuban government. Castro himself has been said to regard this development as a sea-change in American opinion that will soon lead to other, more significant advances like the lifting of the embargo and U.S. recognition of his regime. And who is to say that he is wholly wrong?
In large measure, little Elián González is a victim of two contradictory and conflicting American policies. One is the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1964, which grants automatic political asylum to any Cuban who manages to make it to the United States; at the time of its passage, this piece of legislation, obviously inspired by the cold war, seemed to require very little of us in exchange for scoring major propaganda points against the Communist regime. The other is a migration agreement reached with the Cuban government in 1994: it mandates the immediate return to Cuba of any Cuban nationals who happen to be picked up on the high seas—that is, who do not manage to make it to the U.S. mainland. Under the terms of the second policy, had it been the U.S. Coast Guard and not some fishermen who plucked little Elián out of the water, in all probability he would have been sent back to Cuba immediately and nobody would ever have been the wiser.
To those Americans—not all of them Cuban exiles—familiar with the details of the 1994 migration agreement, this arrangement is wrongheaded and even immoral. But it does serve a concrete humanitarian purpose. More than half of the individuals who set out from Cuba on rafts bound for Florida perish on the high seas, many of them devoured by sharks. The aim of the agreement is to discourage such enterprises. An additional incentive is the 20,000 U.S. visas now awarded each year to Cubans who follow the rules and patiently wait their turn. (Needless to say, the number of applications for these 20,000 places runs into the hundreds of thousands.)
Should Elián be allowed to remain in the United States, Castro would be in an excellent position to claim that Washington had violated its own migration agreement, and then to retaliate by unleashing a huge flotilla of rafters just as he did in another election year—1980—when he also helped to sink the election prospects of another Democratic candidate. That is one reason why the Clinton administration, which negotiated the 1994 migration agreement, is understandably nervous about the Elián case. It has probably already cost Vice President Gore, the President’s presumptive successor, Florida and maybe even New Jersey, two states rich in Cuban-American voters. To complicate matters further, other ethnic groups—and particularly blacks, who form the core of the Democratic constituency—resent the special treatment awarded to Cubans under the older law. Meanwhile, as administration officials have been hiding under their desks and waiting for the courts to bail them out, Republicans on Capitol Hill as well as both major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have chosen to embrace the cause of Elián as their own.
As the matter drags on, everybody else seems to want to get into the act, too, including a whole range of personalities, organizations, and constituencies not normally associated with matters Cuban. Congressional liberals like Joe Moakley, a Democrat from Massachusetts and one of the self-styled paladins of “human rights” in the lower house, have solidly lined up behind Castro, as have leading members of the congressional black caucus—not just Charles Rangel of New York, who has been carrying Havana’s water on Capitol Hill for many years, but such bizarre personalities as Maxine Waters of California. Although these people claim to be motivated solely by considerations of family reunification, and go out of their way to deny that their concern has anything to do with Castro or Cuba, it is difficult—nay, impossible—to imagine them having mobilized to send a child back to Duvalier’s Haiti, or even Pinochet’s Chile.
As for the quality press, with commendable exceptions like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, it has rushed to support the position of the Cuban government, no doubt more out of hatred of the unacceptably conservative Miami community and a deep-seated anti-anti-Communism than out of any great solicitude for the welfare of a child. This has been true not only of the New York Times but of papers as far afield as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. They have been joined by the supposedly “right-wing” but predictably anti-American Economist, which has explained to its British readers that while Cuba is not a free country, at least there (as opposed, presumably, to Miami) “children are generally well looked after.”
Even more remarkable has been the sudden embrace of family values by the National Council of Churches (NCC), an organization normally in favor of just about every antifamily measure that has ever succeeded in landing on the legislative agenda. In what appeared initially to be a brilliant political ploy, the Council decided to bring Elián’s two grandmothers to the United States—in a chartered jet, no less—to press the case for his return.
Unfortunately for the NCC, the episode did not turn out quite so well as expected. After many negotiations, the ladies, dressed and coiffed with an elegance unavailable to any woman in Cuba save the wife of a senior minister or flag officer of the armed forces, met with Elián on what was thought to be neutral turf: the home of Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, a Dominican nun who is president of Barry University in Miami. The encounter was an eye-opener for Sister O’Laughlin, who, thanks to an airport delay, was able to spend an extra hour alone with the little boy and his cousin, a young woman about the same age as his deceased mother who has been caring for him since his arrival.
“It became clear to me,” Sister O’Laughlin later wrote in an op-ed article, that Elián had “transferred his maternal love” to his cousin. When the grandmothers finally arrived, Sister O’Laughlin was struck by how deeply in thrall they were to their official Cuban escort, and this in turn led her to wonder why Elián’s father had not come to the United States. “What, if not fear,” she asked, “could keep a person from making a 30-minute trip to reclaim his son? And what might Elián’s father fear, if not the authoritarian Cuban government itself?” What, indeed.
Although Sister O’Laughlin did not mention it, during the meeting the grandmothers behaved in an extremely odd fashion, asking little Elián to stick out his tongue and unzipping his pants to fondle his private parts. These days, such conduct on the part of an adult family member in the United States would be termed an instance of child abuse and lead to prompt judicial sanction. In this case, however, the media very quickly produced statements from “academic experts” (including the well-named Professor Max Castro of the University of Miami) to assure shocked readers that in many parts of Cuba such behavior is “folkloric”—which would certainly come as news to the more than one million Cubans resident in the United States.
It is intriguing to speculate whether the grandmothers purposely meant to disqualify themselves as fit custodians, thereby advancing the possibility of their grandson’s remaining in the United States.1 It is even more intriguing, following Sister O’Laughlin’s lead, to speculate why the National Council of Churches decided to bring over Elián’s grandmothers rather than his father. Might the NCC, and the Cuban government, have been a little worried that Señor González himself would decide to remain here, thus spiking the whole issue of “family reunification”?
Some such hypothesis is bolstered by the testimony of Reverend Kilari Anand Paul, president of a pacifist organization in Texas called the Global Peace Initiative. In early February, Reverend Paul went to Cuba with, in his words, “an open mind, and with the desire to achieve family reunification.” Having never been to the island before, he was immediately struck by the “fear that grips everybody”: “I have visited numerous countries that suffer oppressive political regimes,” he told EI Nuevo Herald in Miami, “but never have I felt the level of repression, control, and intimidation over people that I felt in Cuba.” During his three-day stay in Havana, Reverend Paul met with government functionaries and religious leaders, and he also went out into the street to learn at first hand the opinion of ordinary Cubans. But his major objective was to meet Elián’s father and ask him face-to-face whether he wanted to visit his son in Miami. His request to meet Señor González without the presence of Cuban government officials was, however, peremptorily denied.
Still, Reverend Paul did manage to speak to a number of the father’s friends, all of whom assured him that, in fact, Señor González wanted his son to remain in the United States. But, they explained, the father was a virtual prisoner, incapable of expressing any opinion at variance with that of the government. As for the nationalist fervor so evident in Cuba earlier, that would seem to have blown over by the time of Reverend Paul’s visit. More than one Cuban told him: “Return the kid here? Are you kidding? Who would want to come back here to suffer our shortages and lack of freedom?” Which leads one to suspect that some of the vitriol expressed by Cubans in those early demonstrations may have masked envy at the boy’s fate. Lately, in any case, a new adage has been circulating in Cuba: Elián, amigo, llevame contgo—Elián, be a buddy, take me with you.
However the case of Elián González turns out, of one thing we can be sure: it sheds considerable light on what might be called our Cuba problem. How are we to deal with a totalitarian regime, 90 miles from our shores, which as a matter of policy keeps its people in such submission and starvation as to compel many of them to risk their lives at sea in hopes of reaching safety here?
It is an embarrassing question, and one that many American liberals would rather not answer. Since the end of the cold war, the whole idea of socialism has been so signally repudiated in so much of the world that Castro’s Cuba, a unique remaining talisman of bygone Utopian hopes, simply cannot be allowed to disappear. To be sure, this is not the way liberals talk about Cuba—not at all. Rather, they say that if only we changed our policy, there would ensue on the island a gradual political liberalization that would work to the benefit of all concerned.
Among those who push this line, some actually do not want political liberalization in Cuba at all. Rather, they imagine that lifting the U.S. trade embargo would throw the regime an economic lifeline. This is a delusion. The Cuban economic system, such as it is, was propped up for 30 years by a generous subsidy from the now-defunct Soviet Union. That subsidy amounted to roughly $6 billion a year, which is to say that, over three decades, Cuba received the rough equivalent of ten Marshall Plans (in constant 1947 dollars). Today it survives on tourism, remittances, and, probably, money-laundering services for South American drug lords.
Tourism—even massive tourism from the United States—could never compensate for this lost Soviet subsidy, for the simple reason that Cuba must import food and other goods to provide for foreign visitors. As a result, the government probably retains, at best, only 25 cents of every tourist dollar, which means that in order to net even $3 billion—half of its previous subsidy from the Soviet Union—it would have to gross somewhere between $12 and $15 billion from that one industry alone. This is clearly impossible: Mexico, whose infrastructure and menu of offerings far outstrip Cuba’s, grosses slightly under $8 billion annually from tourism. In effect, with an economic system designed to suppress initiative and to create artificial scarcities for purposes of political control, there is no likelihood of Cuba’s ever finding the external resources sufficient to compensate for its former privileged status in the Soviet empire.
Then there are various American concerns that want to do business with Cuba: hoteliers, cigar importers, agribusiness tycoons, travel agents, and so forth. Most of these tend to keep a rather low profile on specifically Cuban issues, instead supporting such generically named organizations as USA-Engage that oppose the use of sanctions worldwide. Included under this heading are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau (which imagines that Cuba—a country where the average person earns $10 a month—would be a wonderful market for U.S. food-stuffs), and some American politicians from farm states, like Governor George Ryan of Illinois and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota.
In these quarters, obviously, nobody particularly cares about “saving” the revolution—in fact, there is little interest in the particular form of government that Cuba (or, for that matter, Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Libya) happens to have at any given moment. The prevailing mindset is rather reminiscent of a pharmaceutical executive I once knew who visited Vietnam in the period just before normalization of relations with the United States and came back mesmerized. Though a conservative Republican and a former Reagan administration official, he was determined to work on behalf of better relations with our former enemies. When I asked him why, he exclaimed, “Wonderful country! Hard workers and—best of all—no labor unions.”
Finally there are the American diplomats, publicists, and foreign-policy specialists who are frankly embarrassed by the continuing necessity of standing alone on the Cuba issue at the United Nations or in the World Trade Organization and other international forums. Their discomfort is in some ways understandable: after all, the United States now observes correct and perhaps even cordial relations with Communist China and Vietnam, and for all we know may soon open an embassy in North Korea. How to explain to foreign colleagues just why Cuba—a Caribbean island of no great strategic or economic importance—should occupy so large a space in our foreign-policy considerations? More sincerely than the National Council of Churches or Congressmen Moakley Rangel, or Waters, such people believe that U.S. interests, and even the goal of a gradual democratic transition in Cuba, would be best served by a more normal relationship with the Castro government.
Their views are not to be lightly dismissed. For one thing, they are shared by many Cuban dissidents on the island and by some important exiles—though probably not many in Miami, where the few visible “normalizers” appear to be either sympathizers or agents of Castro. And as for the substance of their position, it is true that whatever international sympathy Cuba has been able to garner since 1989—particularly in Latin America, Western Europe, and what might be called Jimmy Carter’s America—has been based on its status as a victim of the world’s only surviving superpower. Normalizing relations with Castro would arguably deprive him of this status, not to mention ruining the breakfasts of the foreign ministers of France, Sweden, and Canada. It might also deprive him of what remains of his nationalist mystique—his capacity to redirect his people’s resentment of their hardships from him and his regime toward the United States.
But, despite what we are often told, what it would not do is to bring down the regime. Totalitarian dictatorships, after all, survive not on superficially plausible excuses like foreign-trade embargoes or the hostility of neighboring powers but on their police and intelligence apparatuses and their control of every aspect of economic life. Nor is it even necessarily the case that U.S. diplomatic recognition and trade would lead to political liberalization.
For many years now, foreign investment has been limited to joint ventures in which the Cuban government decides whom the foreign company will hire and regularly expropriates for its own purposes up to 90 percent of the salary earned by Cuban employees. Small Cuban-owned businesses are prohibited (except for restaurants set up in private homes), and even the categories of self-employment are strictly limited. So far, in fact, extensive foreign investment, mainly in the tourist sector, by Canada, Spain, France, Italy and Mexico has had no effect whatsoever in ameliorating the repressive political climate.
The sudden appearance of US. investment could have a significant impact, but all in the wrong direction. It would validate the Castro regime historically, convert the U.S. embassy into a formal apologist for repression (as in present-day Haiti), and call into life a new lobby of high-priced Washington lawyers representing American investors, the sole purpose of which would be to dampen any troublesome concerns in Congress and elsewhere over the condition of human rights in Cuba. That is the way things worked for Somoza, Trujillo, and Batista—why not for Castro, too?
In the end, our persistent Cuba problem has its origins in our own national character and values. Americans like to think that their country is different from the cynical and self-seeking European model, that it stands for something more than mere national interest. Of course, lest we forget, many are prepared to remind us of how often we have transgressed that code; but the very fact that we can be called to account suggests the breadth and depth of the bedrock American commitment to freedom. This is what distinguishes us even from other democracies like France, Spain, Italy, or Japan, and what stands in the way of normalizing relations with Cuba. Although taking that step could conceivably serve a number of national purposes, advancing the cause of freedom and affirming our solidarity with the suffering Cuban people are not among them.
Our Cuba problem also arises from a more recent and peculiar source. Because the cold war ended so neatly and peacefully, many people have forgotten, or have chosen to forget, that the victory of the West was the product of 40 years of patient, difficult, and unremitting political warfare—and huge expenditures on armaments. Nowadays, instead, we are told by our historical and political revisionists that the Soviet Union was never a threat in the first place, but a paper tiger conjured up by “cold warriors” or by the military-industrial complex. And if the mighty Soviet empire turned out to be a chimera, why should we trouble ourselves over Cuba?
This issue is not merely theoretical but has broad practical implications. True, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has apparently ceased to be a serious security threat.2 But in depriving his people of basic liberties and even, for the most part, of basic sustenance, Fidel Castro is provoking thousands to risk their lives in the extremely perilous enterprise of trying to reach the U.S. mainland on jerry-built craft. Thanks to Castro, most Cubans are going hungry today; the island’s vaunted medical system is being used to earn dollars from foreign “health tourists”; and its educational system is running short of chalk and pencils. In the case of General Cedras’s Haiti, this sort of tyrannical behavior was regarded as so intolerable that we only yesterday assembled an armada of troops to invade and overthrow his government. Somehow, when it comes to Cuba, it is seen as all in a day’s work.
In this connection, one cannot but be struck by the incuriosity of many Americans—particularly those most anxious to send Elián back—as to just why it was that his mother risked and lost her life on his behalf. Although poverty, even extreme poverty, exists in many other countries in and around the Caribbean, only in Cuba are misery and helplessness and unfreedom a deliberate government policy, implemented with unusually un-Latin thoroughness. As long as this is the case, Cubans will continue to want to flee their country in large numbers. As for the United States, as long as it remains true to its history and values, it will, and should, continue to have a Cuba problem on its doorstep.
1 Since her meeting with Elián’s grandmothers, Sister O’Laughlin has also revealed that, ten days before the raft’s ill-fated journey from Cuba, one of the boy’s grandfathers had telephoned a relative in Miami to alert him to the hoped-for imminent arrival of Elián and his mother. Subsequent to divulging this bit of news, which she reported having been told by the grandmother in question, Sister O’Laughlin received several telephoned threats—surely not from Miami’s “right-wing” Cuban community.
2 I say “apparently” because Castro is rumored to have an important biological-warfare capability, and there has even been serious speculation that he may be nourishing a scenario to end his regime in flames and glory by provoking U.S. military intervention.