Go Figure

By Will Baker

What is occurring, regarding the negotiations over reuniting six-year-old Elian Gonzalez with his father, Juan Miguel, amazes me. I can not deny that I am a "news junkie," however based upon the manner in which events have unfolded, it seems to me that I clearly must have missed something regarding this story. Or else my initial reaction, which has remained essentially unchanged during this four-month saga, must have no basis in reality. You see I simply can not fathom why there is any question at all regarding the appropriateness of returning this little boy to his father.

It is my understanding that Elian’s parents were divorced. Yet based upon the news accounts that I have read it seems that Elian’s dad has remained very much a part of his son’s life. Evidently, Elian’s mother made the decision to try to bring her son to the United States--I presume so that he might have an opportunity for a better life, and she died in the process. Last December, Elian was found off the coast of Florida clinging to an inner tube, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I do not write very often about stories such as these-the mainstream media does a much more thorough job than I could ever hope to of inundating us all with every conceivable spin and angle. However, the story, as I see it, is no longer about the trials and tribulations of poor Elian, or what type of life he can expect if he is returned to his father or the bitter feelings of the Cuban-American community associated with this controversy. No, in my opinion, this story is all about how we have allowed folks to play political football, with Elian as the pigskin.

I suppose that compelling arguments could be made in support of, and in opposition to the decision that Elian’s mother made to attempt the dangerous journey to the United States. I have heard her referred to by some as a hero, who gave her life so that her son might have a chance at freedom. While others have said that she was a fool for loosing her life, leaving her son motherless, and nearly killing him in the process. Yet be that as it may, it seems to me that the real issue should be about getting the little boy back where he belongs, in the custody of his sole surviving parent. And then, after this is accomplished, taking steps to see that this type of situation might never occur again.

It seems to me that The Cuban-American community views this as an opportunity to put a spotlight on the repression associated with the Castro regime. Repression that is evidently so severe that it sometimes forces reasonable folks to take unreasonable risks. However I strongly disagree with some statements that I have heard coming from this "camp" indicating that if Elian is returned to Cuba, the mother will have died in vain, what utter nonsense. We are talking about a little boy here. He is not a symbol of the quest for freedom. He is a little fellow who recently lost his mother in a terrible accident, nearly died himself, and now finds himself a "stranger in a strange land." And the grandstanding being undertaken on the part of Fidel Castro is equally reprehensible. In my opinion, he is clearly attempting to use this situation for what he calculates to be his political advantage. Of course, in the process he is also displaying his usual ham-handedness. And then there is the Clinton Administration, which some feel was "asleep at the switch," when Elian was not quickly returned to his father. Also sharing the blame for contributing to this unacceptable situation is the U.S. Congress that for some reason decided to muddy the water by talking seriously about granting the little boy citizenship. And let’s not forget the presidential contenders who are attempting to use the issue to gain political favor with the American people.

The media has been devoting quite a bit of time to analyzing the type of life young Elian can expect, if and when he is returned to Cuba. I wonder what this exercise is all about. Although contrasting the two potential life-experiences, that of growing up in the U.S. as opposed to Cuba, could be an interesting exercise, the relevance escapes me. Tom Mangan, Editor of the web-site "Seven Questions," recently interviewed me. As an aside, If you are interested in reading the interview it can be found here: interview. Anyway, one of the questions he asked was: "How do you think your life would've turned out if you'd been born in Africa instead of the United States?" I have to admit that this was a very thought provoking question. And the experience of answering it had value in that it helped me to focus on how truly fortunate I feel to be born and raised in the United States. However, under the circumstances, it seems to me that applying this type of hypothetical question to the matter of young Elian Gonzales is highly inappropriate.

The very act of asking this question implies that the matter of where he is to be raised is open for debate. And I suppose that it would be, were it not for the fact that he has a father, and they are Cuban citizens. And, like it or not, Cuba is a sovereign nation. Therefore, it seems to me that two of its citizens, Elian and his father specifically, should not be bound by the conclusions of a very public debate, concerning their private family affairs, which is taking place in another country, namely ours.

As a parent, I try to place myself in the position of Elian’s father, Juan Miguel. It seems to me, that if I were he, I would be feeling quite a range of emotions. I would certainly be saddened by the death of my ex-wife and friend. And I would desperately want my little boy back. Remember that this is a man who, after his divorce, remained present in his son’s life. It is my understanding that he faithfully made his child-support payments, and in fact he often paid more than what he was required by law to provide. And let’s not forget that Cuba is a developing country. Therefore we can presume that Juan Miguel received a limited education, and probably possesses a world-view that can be characterized as less than expansive. And all of this can be overlaid upon the lifetime of anti-American propaganda, which he undoubtedly has been exposed to, at the hands of the Castro regime. Therefore, he might very well suspect the Americans of kidnapping his child. I can hear the Cuban authorities saying, "Juan Miguel, if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck…it’s probably a duck."

So where does this leave us? Well, we could try apologizing to Juan Miguel for the lengthy delay in returning his son, and then immediately fly them both back to Cuba. It is a simple plan, but with one major difficulty: it makes sense. And when dealing with politically charged situations, unbelievably, it seems to me that that can sometimes be a liability. Go figure.


 (Essay Collection)