I remember the first time that name, "Elian Gonzalez," flashed across my computer screen. I had subscribed to a Cuban "current events" listserve in preparation for a three-week academic trip I would be taking there in January 2000. I also remember being struck at how sadly the boy's tale had begun--two days afloat in the Florida straits, after having watched his mother and nine others drown, now separated from the only family he's known and lost in the midst of a media circus and protest frenzy. Yet the next feeling that I experienced was one of sincere disappointment at what I considered to be the knee-jerk reaction of the left in this country. "Send the boy home," they declared, "he belongs with [to] his father." As a recently emancipated youth myself, as someone who was only a few years ago considered the property of my parents, or of the state, it occurred to me that an awful lot of people seemed to be overlooking a very basic question: what does Elian Gonzalez want to do?
Though I can't claim to have ever been a "political refugee," though nations have never waged ideological warfare over the status of my citizenship, I can say that I identified somewhat with that young man whose fate would not be his own to determine. I thought to myself, "what if this Juan Gonzalez guy is a big jerk? what if Elian does want to live in a country where he can go to Walt Disney World every weekend and have three bicycles? and what if, in the midst of all this protest and conceit, nobody gets around to asking Elian how he's coping with the loss of his mother?" It seemed a pretty easily resolved issue to me at that time: "Elian, do you want to go back to Cuba?" What other alternative was there, really? If we never stopped to consider the will of this traumatized young person, then our only other option was to concede to his Miami captors or his Cuban owners. Since that time, and through my trip to Cuba, I've come to recognize what a complex discussion this really is, and how issues of international law, public opinion, and imperialism have made nearly any consideration of the inherent rights of young people practically moot. Ironically enough, my time in Cuba was to be spent studying the African slave-trade; so while the future of Eliancito was being determined for him in the streets and backrooms of Miami, I would be reading the accounts of men such as Juan Manzano, whose life was also the property of others.
While in Cuba, I could scarcely avoid discussing this issue with my classmates or the Cuban people themselves--it was on everyone's mind, not to mention the Elian billboards, the almost daily protests, and the "all Elian, all the time" television programming. To their credit, the people of Cuba seem to have an informed, thoughtful outlook on the situation. They understand, in a way that is most refreshing and yet foreign to the average American, the important distinction between a people and their government. Cubans recognize that U.S.-Cuban policy is still largely decided upon in Miami, and that the poor and people of color in the United States are just as often victims to the U.S. ruling class mentality as they are themselves.
My group was also fortunate enough to have as a guest lecturer respected Cuban intellectual Roberto Retamar. He commented rather sardonically how wonderful it was that the United States has decided to take on the burden of caring for all of the world's disadvantaged children, those who are suffering under the conditions of poverty or living under a "dictatorship" such as Cuba is portrayed. Perhaps soon, he mused, all the children of Latin America and the Caribbean, of Africa, and Asia, will be finding safety and comfort on the shores of America. But underlying the dispute over the rights to Elian, he said, behind the trip to Disney World, the toys, the money, is the assertion that the poor of this world do not have the right to procreate, and that the real measure of one's wellbeing, or parenting, is the ability to provide your loved ones with an affluent and materialistic lifestyle. Indeed, so many Cuban Americans that I have spoken with point to their abundant lifestyle in the U.S. as irrefutable evidence that Cuba's resistance to capitalism is at the root of its material poverty.
Other Cubans were quick to point out that the U.S. is violating international agreements by failing to return Elian to his father, such as the U.S./Cuba immigration accords arrived at in 1994-5, and the Convention on
the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. They knew that this exception was not being made on the basis of humanitarian concern, and that a Haitian boy, or a Mexican child, or any child from most anywhere in the world, would have been quickly returned to their home country with little or no regard for their wellbeing. If the "Miami mafia" is truly concerned about the lives of Cuban children, they pointed out, then they will work to bring an end to the cruel U.S. embargo on Cuba and will stop sponsoring terrorism against the Cuban people.
This is not to say that the people we encountered are of one mind on this or any other issue--to claim such would only lend creedence to allegations that Cuban society is totalitarian, and that all dissent is ruthlessly crushed. There are many Cubans hungering for the U.S. dollar, for the U.S. lifestyle, and there were some we talked to who felt that Elian should remain in Florida, or at least let them go in his place. There was one man we spoke with who even believed that Juan Gonzalez was not wholly ignorant of his ex-wive's plans to migrate, and there were no shortage of Cubans who would speak privately about the sometimes repressive nature of the Cuban state. What the Cuban people do share, if nothing else, is a common history--a history that includes dictatorship and imperialism, a people's revolution, and a forty-year commitment to the common good which still thrives despite their stumbling blocks.
At some point in my journey it occurred to me how U.S. immigration policy--which really lies at the heart of the Elian case--has been used as one more weapon to undermine Cuba and its revolution, and how the results of that policy are used as further ammunition in the propaganda efforts against the Cuban government. In the varied discussions which have taken place in this country regarding Eliancito, few have examined the string of U.S. policy decisions which have led to the flood of Cuban "refugees" who regularly find their way to Florida shores. Mainstream reporters in the U.S., victims to the same propaganda efforts as the rest of us, too easily let the word "dictatorship" enter into their description of the besieged island nation, too rarely mention the 40-year U.S. war against the Cuban people, and too often neglect to mention that the U.S. treatment of Cuban immigrants is fundamentally different from that of any other people in the world. According to current U.S. policy, only somewhat modified from the ridiculous 1966 "Cuban Adjustment Act," all Cubans are considered refugees fleeing from a totalitarian regime, and are offered shelter upon reaching our shores. Yet what people from throughout the underdeveloped world would not jump at the chance to seek their fortune in the wealthiest nation on the globe? The increasing militarization of our U.S./Mexico border underscores the obvious outcome were our government to open its doors to all of Latin America in such a way.
So how does one resolve such a situation, especially if that one happens to be as avid a youth-rights activist as they are anti-imperialist? I don't claim to have arrived at any solid answers in my few weeks in Havana, nor have I really been able to work it all out since my return. My right-brained approach to the world has found no underlying formula to ease my deliberations, only a jumbled mix of variables and the few guiding principles I've been able to discern: a sincere respect for the Cuban people and all that they have endured, a sympathetic and yet pragmatic survey of the successes and failures of the Cuban Revolutionary government, a growing skepticism of my own government's foreign policy intentions, a disdain for a domestic child custody policy which has only in this instance really purported concern for the welfare of a child, and a young beautiful boy, likely feeling about as confused as a six-year old can be, and about as far away from home as one could possibly imagine.