The violent seizure of Eilian Gonzalez by US Federal Marshals does not end the affair, as John Styles reports.
When, on 13 April, the US television networks aired a videotape in which six-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez declared from the home of his Miami relatives that he did not wish to go back to Cuba, those advocating his return said the boy had been coached to say what he said.
As the conservative Media Research Center (MRC) observed, “Network anchors and reporters didn’t hesitate to condemn the Miami relatives for releasing video of Elian saying he does not want to go back to Cuba – just before they all played it. And played it again and again, all day Thursday. You don’t have to agree with the Cuban-Americans who want Elian to stay put to think it’s going a bit far to accuse the relatives of ‘brainwashing’ Elian, but that’s just what one NBC anchor did last Thursday afternoon.”
Elian Gonzalez, who was pulled from the sea off the Florida coast last November, lost his mother when the small boat in which they, and 14 others were travelling, sank while attempting to flee Castro’s Cuba. Only Elian and two others survived.
In the web of claim and counter-claim that followed, sections of the Australian media, like some of their US counterparts, have been advocating that Elian should be reunited with his father and allowed to return to Cuba with him.
The case for Elian’s return to Cuba relies on the simple fact that Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who was divorced from Elian’s mother, remains the boy’s natural father and is morally entitled to have custody of his child. It is a simple, powerful argument.
It is also the view of the United States Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) that Elian should return to Cuba with his father, who has travelled to Miami with Castro minders for that express purpose. At the time of writing, the INS is attempting to enforce its ruling.
That position has also been adopted by some Australian media correspondents based in the US, and echoed in at least one local editorial. “Elian Gonzalez must be returned to Cuba without delay,” the Melbourne Age demanded on January 14. In the US, the conservative Washington Times editorialised, “They [the Cuban Americans] also have to be prepared to let the child go, should his father want to return to Cuba.”
One US news magazine, however, has been consistently campaigning against Elian’s immediate return to Cuba.
The Weekly Standard detected a reason for the INS hard line when it noted that President Bill Clinton has always had two aims in respect of Cuba. They are: “First, to normalise relations with Castro’s regime, which he continues to work on through back channels; and second, to avoid a massive refugee influx such as the Mariel boat-lift of 1980,” Christopher Caldwell wrote in an editorial on April 10.
“In 1994,” Caldwell wrote, “President Clinton issued an executive order he hoped would serve both ends. It re-interpreted the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which had granted Cuban refugees the right to stay in the US once they got here. Clinton adjusted the Adjustment Act so that it applied only to the American mainland, not territorial waters.”
If the fishermen who rescued Elian from the inner tube had put the boy ashore, the case would have been bound for an asylum hearing of the kind Elian’s Miami relatives originally sought. Asylum would have been almost guaranteed. Instead, upon rescuing Elian, the fishermen handed him over to the US Coast Guard, effectively placing the boy’s fate in the hands of the INS, which is within the jurisdiction of Attorney General Janet Reno.
It is a situation which, while advancing the Administration’s agenda, enables the President to say he is merely following the law. But that’s a “con job” according to The Weekly Standard, which claims both Reno and Clinton have the discretion to allow Elian Gonzalez to remain in the US.
Normally, it is the proper role of government to create and maintain the conditions which enable families to remain intact. However, this is not a normal situation. The simple, emotive proposition that the best place for Elian is with his father, back in Cuba, is open to question.
The precise nature of the relationship between Elian and his biological father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, is difficult to determine. It has been established that Juan Miguel did not begin to demand the return of his son until after Fidel Castro had turned the Elian issue into a national crusade. Under a regime that does not tolerate dissent, in a climate of fear, it is impossible to know Juan Miguel’s true feelings and hopes for his son’s future.
It is known that Elian’s mother and father were divorced, that his father had remarried and started a new family. It is known that Elian’s mother appeared to be the boy’s legal guardian and primary carer; and that Elian also stayed with his father regularly. It is known that to send Elian back would be to ignore his mother’s clear intention of providing a future for her son away from Castro’s Cuba.
There is also the finding of Senator Robert Smith (R-NH), who visited Elian Gonzalez and his Miami relatives in January. Senator Smith wrote to Janet Reno, informing her, “The boy’s father in Cuba originally approved of Elian’s and his mother’s planned escape to the United States and also intended to defect at a later date with his current wife and child.”
When Barry University President, Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, met with Elian’s Cuban grandmothers in her home on January 25, the nun who had previously supported his return changed her mind. She signed an affidavit saying that the grandmothers appeared to have been “intimidated and frightened” and that she was of the belief that “the grandmothers could not act under their own free will”.
Sister O’Laughlin stated: “I am convinced that the grandmothers were not free to respond or act as they would towards their family, and that the situation was controlled by Cuban officials. It seems apparent that if the Cuban government utilises these types of pressure tactics and exerts complete influence over Elian’s grandmothers, that Elian’s father, too, is acting under the Cuban government’s strict instructions.”
The online Capitalism Magazine has been pushing several key issues in the Elian Gonzalez case.
The magazine asserts Elian’s “inalienable right to be a free human being” must be placed above anyone’s custodial rights. It supports Sister O’Laughlin’s conclusion that Elian’s father is not free to speak and therefore we have no way of knowing what he really wants for his son.
Further, it maintains, to send him back would, in effect, be “sanctioning communism” and would sentence the boy to slavery.
Lending weight to that last point, the April 12 edition of CBS Evening News, in a segment called “The American Dream”, carried a profile of Walter Polovchak who, in 1980, at age 12, asked to be allowed to stay in the US and not return home to Ukraine with his parents. According to a transcript issued by the MRC, Polovchak observed, “[the] American Dream means to me freedom, the ability to practise any religion you want to, the freedom of speech. The American Dream is what I got when a government allowed me to stay in this country.”
CBS host Dan Rather noted that Polovchak has twice visited independent Ukraine and “re-established warm relations with his parents”.
When the relatives of Elian Gonzalez released the videotape in which the six-year-old said he did not wish to go back to Cuba, we were told to disregard it. Mark Riley, the New York correspondent of The Age wrote: “Those who want to see the boy back with his long-suffering father … saw it as the ultimate manipulation.”
Yet, right at the beginning of the sad affair, we were told by the New York correspondent for The Australian, Stephen Romei, that Elian Gonzalez had a right to be heard.
The April 13 video was not the first time Elian had declared that he did not wish to go back to Cuba.
Earlier that month, the MRC reported that the US ABC network drew widespread criticism when it suppressed footage of Elian Gonzalez telling its “Good Morning America” reporter, Diane Sawyer, that he did not want to return to Cuba.
According to the MRC, “Diane Sawyer crawled around on a playroom floor with Elian Gonzalez, asking him questions.” But when the program went to air, the station refused to let viewers hear what Elian actually said.
Following criticism, the station relented and put Elian’s responses to air the next day. Diane Sawyer explained, “As we said before, the relatives in Miami say Elian repeatedly insists he does not want to go back to Cuba. He told us that, too, but in this inflamed climate, on this inflamed subject, we thought it best not to broadcast the exact words of a six-year-old child.”
As the MRC asked, why do the interview in the first place, then?
In the key exchange, as transcribed by the MRC, Sawyer asked Elian: “Would you like it if he [Elian’s father] came to visit here?” “No,” Elian whispered. “No? Why not?” Sawyer asked.
“Because he’ll take me to Cuba and I don’t want to go to Cuba,” Elian said.
“Would you like it if he stayed here?” Sawyer asked. “He can stay here. I don’t want to go,” Elian replied.
The MRC observed, “not letting something said by an interviewee be used in the political process is a novel concern for a news operation.”
Columnist Cal Thomas commented, “I can guarantee you that because of the media’s coverage for over 30 years of Fidel Castro’s island as a socialist paradise, that if he had said he did want to go back to Cuba it would have been a soundbite.”
The Elian Gonzalez tragedy has been taken over by many competing agendas. It is a complex situation. But, in the April 17 editorial of The Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell cut through to focus on an incontestable fact. He noted that, under the Cuban constitution, parental rights exist “only so long as their influence does not go against the political objectives of the state”.
Caldwell wrote, “When Elian gets on the plane, Juan Miguel doesn’t get the little boy; Cuba does. Juan Miguel will not make the final decisions that shape Elian’s life; Cuba will. Under the guise of ‘the rule of law,’ we’re returning a little boy to a world where no rule of law exists.”