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Elián Gonzalez

When the Politics of Paranoia Win the Day

26 May 2000
It doesn't take deep digging into the fragile crust of American life before the gremlin-like paranoid powers that often shape the nation's politics jump right out in provocative and astonishing combinations.

But, even for a country where the rate of divorce far exceeds that of voter participation, the case of Elián Gonzalez has to be up there along with the most ludicrous political incidents in recent years. It involves a boy who found himself snatched from his communist nursery school by his late mother and her boyfriend, shipwrecked on a Florida coast, and detained by the United States Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS). He was then abducted by distant relatives, paraded through the streets of Little Havana like a war trophy, gazed at by deranged madding crowds in the US and Cuba alike, and was worshiped by embarrassingly superstitious Cuban-American Catholics as a saint. And then, just as the God-forsaken child had started to lead a life which put to shame the luxuries of China's last Emperor, he was abducted again, this time at gunpoint, by red-eyed INS commandos, and handed over to his father. Since then he has been moved across a number of locations in and around Washington DC, amidst security measures that would even scare His Supreme Divinity Pope John Paul II.

The facts of the case have not been forgotten. They have simply been ignored. Legal principle requires the child to be reunited with his closest surviving relatives, in the location of their preference —in Elián's case, Havana, Cuba. What is more, the child's abduction by his deranged anti-Castro uncles constitutes a crime, which should be severely punished under US law. Not only did the latter individuals abduct and confine the child; they also did all they could to sabotage even his most basic communication with his father: "sometimes they talk to the boy in loud voices while we're having a conversation. They turn up the volume of the cartoons on the television as high as possible, or put a candy in his mouth so that I can't understand what he's saying" (1), said earlier this year Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elián's father.

And there are other facts, deliberately ignored: the so-called Cuban-American National Foundation, a Cold War organisation representing a minuscule fraction of the Cuban-American community, has claimed that Elián should be forced to stay in the US, in order that his soul be saved from communism and its totalitarian expressions on which the Cuban political system is based. Yet the Cuban-American National Foundation should not really be in a position to speak in support of democracy and citizens' rights: the organisation has alleged links to numerous terrorist acts in Cuba, during the 1960s and '70's, and it is staffed by individuals such as its bizarre Miami-based spokesman, Jose Basulto. A Bay of Pigs participant, Basulto has acknowledged his involvement in terrorist activity in Cuba (2). He has also acknowledged working for the military dictatorship in Argentina during the late 1970s and early '80s, a regime whose human rights record makes Castro and his comrades look like the Smurfs in comparison. And the truth of the matter is that, in terms of the ability of human beings to lead decent lives, Cuba is far from desperate cases, such as Sudan, Cambodia or Somalia. Even within the most hardcore anticommunist lobbies in the United States, there are individuals who are prepared to admit that "one remarkable thing about Havana is that there is not widespread misery and abject poverty. For all the restrictions, people are allowed to live decent lives" (3).

Anticommunist Cuban-American fanatics have also claimed that, by being allowed to go back to Cuba, Elián Gonzalez will become "another child victim of Fidel Castro" (2). They claim that the boy will be treated like a criminal and his human rights will be systematically violated. Yet what, you might ask, is the human rights record in the US, when it comes to the welfare of immigrant children, such as Elián?

Well, funny you should ask that, because, a couple of years ago, Human Rights Watch International published the results of a survey conducted on this very issue. It began with the story of Xial Ling, a 15 year old Asian girl, who for no less than 6 months, "lived in a small concrete cell, completely bare except for bedding and a Bible in a language she could not read. [She was not] allowed to speak her own language, told not to laugh, and even forced to ask permission to scratch her nose. Bewildered, miserable, and unable to communicate with anyone around her, she cried every day" (4).

Rotting in a Burmese jail? Being subjected to inhuman humiliation in a shady Cambodian detention centre? Not at all. She is simply one more immigrant child under the custody of the United States Immigration and Naturalisation Service. According to the aforementioned report, there have been numerous cases of violations of children's rights "in breach of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. statutory provisions, INS regulations, the terms of court orders binding on the INS, and international law" (4). Additionally, the report found that "with regard to unaccompanied children, the INS has an inherent and troubling conflict of interest: children are arrested, imprisoned, and frequently removed by the same agency that is charged with caring for them and protecting their legal rights [... T]oo many children [have been] detained in jail-like conditions for long periods of time and [...] the INS [has] failed to inform children of their legal rights, interfered with their efforts to obtain legal representation, and failed to facilitate contact with their family members". That would have been Elián's fate had it not been for his abduction by his distant relatives in Miami. Did I hear anyone say something about Cuba?

Ultimately, the case of Elián Gonzalez is not a Cuban-American issue. It's an American-American issue. A nation is forced to deal with the demented side of its personality. It is through such incidents that Cold War paranoia is allowed to creep back in from the dustbin of history. It is then that one realises how damaging anticommunist hysteria has been for the individuals and institutions that lived through it. And, sure, the Cubans have been equally hysterical about the situation. But, hey, they are supposed to be the bad guys, right? We are the ones priding ourselves about our great democratic tradition and the rule of law that applies to all. Or does it?

© The News Insider 2000

(1) G.G. Marzuez (2000) Shipwreck on Dry Land, Joventud Robelde Design, Havana, Cuba, 15 March.

(2) J. Meldon (2000) Behind the Elian Case, The Consortium, 30 March.

(3) J. Brown (2000) Elian case shines fresh spotlight on Cuba, The Christian Science Monitor, 11 May.

(4) Human Rights Watch (1998) Detained and Deprived of Rights: Children in the Custody of the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service, December.

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