Cubans demand 'Bring Elian home!'

January 26, 2000


Cubans demand 'Bring Elian home!'

By Gilberto Firmat

ATLANTA — Elian Gonzalez is at the centre of what has become the bitterest dispute ever between Cuba and the United States. He was found on November 25, Thanksgiving Day, floating in an inner tube a couple of miles from the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, one of three survivors of an ill-fated attempt to cross the Florida Straits from Cuba.

His mother was among the dead. She was the victim of the greed of the man she lived with, who overfilled the 5.2-metre boat with paying passengers, and of a US policy which supposedly discourages such crossings but actually rewards those who survive with guaranteed US residency if they can make it to Florida before the Coast Guard catches them.

Under US-Cuba migration accords, Elian normally would have been sent back, because he did not make it to shore. That is what happened just a couple of weeks later when a group of people hijacked a Cuban boat at knife point, kidnapped the crew and headed north. The US Coast Guard intercepted them and, after interviewing the hijackers and the crew, sent them all back to Cuba.

PictureBut not Elian. He was brought to shore and briefly hospitalised. Elian's father, who had not discovered the mother's plans until after she had left with the boy, was immediately contacted by the south Florida hospital — Elian knew his father's phone number — and he, in turn, contacted an uncle in Miami.

The rest of the story should have been predictable. Through the good offices of the great uncle and both governments, the grieving boy and his anguished father would have been reunited. It would be a moving scene, repeated countless times in newscasts the world over accompanied by a narration of the boy's odyssey. For that is, undoubtedly, where such a boy belongs, in the arms of his father, at home, with the security of his normal routine, his grandparents, his friends and his school, creating a space for him to grieve and come to terms with the loss of his mother.

But that is not what happened to Elian. Instead of arranging for the boy to be reunited with his father, the US authorities gave the boy to the great uncle, who immediately linked up with right-wing groups and announced he would keep the boy in the US.

Elian had been found on a Thursday and was released from hospital the next day. By Monday, Miami was flooded with posters of a sad, dazed little boy's face accompanied by the words, "Another one of Castro's victims".

Diplomacy ignored

In Cuba, the father and the boy's four grandparents went to the government to ask for help in getting Elian back. The capitalist news media frequently say that Havana and Miami are equally guilty of politicising the case, but that is not true. Cuba initially tried to handle the matter discreetly through diplomatic channels, ignoring the noisy anti-communist campaign in Miami. Repeated diplomatic notes and public statements were met with silence.

The US State Department announced that custody was an issue for the Miami courts to decide. The reaction of ordinary Cubans went from disbelief, to anger, to outrage.

With public sentiment near boiling point, Cuban President Fidel Castro personally made one last appeal. Speaking to reporters nine days after the boy had been found, he warned that unless the United States began acting responsibly, in 72 hours Cuba would launch a public, political campaign to force the boy's return.

In the event, the Cuban people did not wait 72 hours. By the following evening, protests had started in front of the US interests section in Havana.

In Miami, the right-wing Cuban emigres decided to stage one more provocation. That Sunday (December 5), in front of numerous TV cameras and reporters, they held a party for Elian's sixth birthday where the main attraction was a pinata shaped like an airplane and bore the name of one of the most notorious counter-revolutionary groups, Brothers to the Rescue. A Florida congresswoman draped the boy with a US flag, saying he was an American now.

When Cubans saw these images the next day, they exploded. What followed were the most massive demonstrations in Cuba's history. Close to 1 million people demonstrated in Havana alone, and some 2 million in other cities.

Farcical justice

The shock wave was felt all the way to Washington. The State Department's announcement of a few days earlier was forgotten; the new position became that Elian was in a legal limbo.

On the morning of a December 24 hearing, scheduled after discussions between the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service and Elian's father, the INS, without a word of explanation, postponed the hearing for a month. On January 5, the head of the immigration service announced that the boy's father was the one entitled to speak for the boy, that the father wanted the boy sent back, and set a January 14 deadline for the relatives to do so.

The right-wing Cubans in Miami howled with rage. They promised to paralyse the city with mass civil disobedience, but could only muster a few hundred people. The major disruption came from heavy construction equipment and 18-wheelers owned by a couple of companies belonging to right-wing emigres who ordered their drivers to block the major roadways. These protests backfired, exposing the weakness of the right-wing groups, and were called off after two days.

Lawyers for the right-wing groups challenged the decision in the local family courts. Although they have no jurisdiction over immigration, local judges in Miami are elected, and given the domination that well-heeled right wingers have over local politics, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.

The judge dutifully found that Cuba was "a living hell" and that raising a child there was "child abuse". Family law experts pointed out that her action was at odds with the law, which requires that custody actions be brought in the place of a child's habitual residence, and a usurpation of federal jurisdiction.

The INS, and the federal justice department to which it belongs, did nothing to stop this farce until it came out that the judge had close ties to the spokesperson for the Miami relatives. She had paid him and his wife tens of thousands of dollars for work in her election campaign.

At that point, attorney-general Janet Reno announced that local courts had no jurisdiction. However, at the same time she lifted the deadline and promised not to enforce the decision. She said she wanted the Miami relatives to take their case to federal court, but took no action to force them to do so.

The lawyers for the Miami relatives are stalling for time until the US Congress comes back into session at the end of January. The leaders of the Republican majority have promised to push a bill making Elian a citizen, thus removing him from INS jurisdiction.

War against Cuba

Over the last two months, the case has become a cause célèbre in the United States. There have been picket lines, petition campaigns, press conferences and public meetings to demand the boy's return. The case has been front-page news for weeks, and grist for the mill of unending "talking head" shows on the cable TV news channels.

Over the course of the battle, public opinion has shifted. The most recent polls indicate that about 55% now support Elian's repatriation, with one-third opposed and the rest undecided. Many major newspapers have published editorials in support of the INS decision.

The obvious question then becomes, why doesn't Bill Clinton do the legal thing, the right thing, the popular thing, and send the boy back to Cuba? One common answer is that the right-wing Miami Cubans exert tremendous political influence through lobbying groups, which funnel donations to their friends in the Democratic and Republican parties. And that is true.

But there is another, deeper reason for Washington's refusal to return the boy. That is that the right-wing Cuban mafia — as Castro calls them — are an irreplaceable instrument in Washington's 40-year war against the Cuban revolution and its extension in Latin America.

Since the US Central Intelligence Agency first set up these kinds of groups in 1959, Washington has carefully nurtured and protected them. They have carried out dozens of bombings, assassinations and other terrorist attacks, and even blew up a Cuban civilian airliner in mid-air in the 1970s, with complete impunity. For decades, right-wing Cubans have been among the main CIA operatives working with death squads and repressive right-wing regimes in Latin America.

Often these groups do things that embarrass Washington — like Elian's kidnapping — but Uncle Sam looks the other way. The US rulers understand that that is the inevitable result of keeping a substantial layer of people on a fanatical war footing for four decades, as they have done.

Elian's return would be a devastating blow to the right-wing mafia. So Clinton and Reno buy time, hoping the issue will go away.

But Cuba will not let the case go away. The Cuban people have pledged "to move heaven and earth" if that's what it takes to win Elian's freedom. And it is clear that even more pressure must be brought to bear on Washington.

This attempt to deny a boy the love and comfort of his father's embrace after the death of his mother in order to make cheap anticommunist propaganda is an unspeakable crime. Defenders of human rights should place themselves on a war footing to scandalise the Clinton administration from one end of the world to the other until the US government does what it admits is the only right thing to do, which is to reunite the boy with his father and grandparents in Cuba.

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