Balancing Family and Freedom

This article appeared in the Washington Times on January 25, 2000.

The two grandmothers of Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez made a well-publicized pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to plead for his return. It was a poignant scene, as Fidel Castro undoubtedly expected. But, it does not help resolve the 6-year-old's future.

Elian was rescued off Florida's coast on Thanksgiving Day after his boat, filled with Cuban refugees, capsized. His mother and stepfather perished.

Elian was placed with relatives in Miami, but his father, still in Cuba, requested that Elian be sent back. The Immigration and NaturalizationService agreed, setting Jan. 14 for his return.

But a Florida court asserted jurisdiction and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., subpoenaed Elian for a March congressional hearing.

Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., and Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., are sponsoring legislation to make Elian a U.S. citizen.

Which prompted the grandmothers' visit. They met with INS CommissionerDoris Meissner, who said the two ladies "made a very compassionate and heartfeltplea to be reunited with their grandson."

Elian's case is a tragedy. His family's flight highlights the reactionary communist system that continues to impoverish and oppress the Cuban people.

The deaths of Elian's mother and stepfather show the price that somepeople pay for freedom. Their deaths, the worst loss a child can suffer, are particularly catastrophic for Elian.

Moreover, Elian has lost his father, and Juan Gonzalez has lost his son.If Elian stays in America, it may be years before they see each other again.

Normally, the case would be simple. The father wants his child back. Back Elian should go.

Reuniting the two is particularly important given the death of Elian's mother. The distant relatives with whom he is staying may offer him aloving home. But his father represents the security that Elian most needs afterhis mother perished.

Alas, however, Elian would not be returning to Canada, France or evenRussia today, all of which he could freely leave in the future. To return to hisfather is to return to Castro's Cuba, an island prison.

Indeed, it has been alleged that Elian's dad knew of and supported theplan to take Elian to America. But if this is so, Juan Gonzalez cannot easilyadmit the truth when his livelihood, liberty and life, and those of his family,are at Castro's disposal.

Again, normally the case would be simple. Despite anomalies Cubans face a bizarre policy whereby they are returned if captured at sea, but can stayif they touch land America has generally welcomed political refugees.

Yet, Elian is just 6. He lacks the judgment necessary to form a well-considered desire to stay.

The only comparable case is that of Walter Polovchak, a 12-year-old who emigrated with his family from the Soviet Union in 1980.

When Polovchak's father decided after six months to return to communism, Walter resisted, leading to a nearly six-year court fight that ended onlywhen he turned 18. He now lives in Illinois and says that his refusal to return"is the best decision I have ever made."

However, Walter, not his mother, chose to seek freedom. His decision demonstrates how a child of 12, in contrast to one of 6, might understandthe basic differences between a free and unfree society. Walter was much closerto adulthood which actually ended his case than is Elian. Moreover, Walter hadnot lost a parent.

Ironically, the collapse of communism means that Polovchak eventuallywould have been able to leave if he desired to do so. Communism in Cuba will disappear, too, hopefully, early in Elian's lifetime. But he could easilyspend his entire childhood locked in an impoverished dictatorship.

What to do?

First, take the case away from the INS, which used a frivoloustechnicality to assert its jurisdiction and acted with unseemly haste in deciding toreturn Elian. This most politically minded administration seems more interested in enhancing relations with Havana than protecting the freedom of a 6-year-oldkid.

Second, let a court hold a custody hearing to determine what is inElian's "best interests." Request that Juan Gonzalez, the two grandmothers, andany other immediate family members appear in the courtroom, free from Cuban coercion, to explain what they want for the child. And promise them asylumif they want to stay in America.

Then, if the court decides that the best option is to return Elian, so beit. If it is to keep him here, so much the better. Who would want to have tochoose between family and freedom?

Even worse, who should make the choice for Elian Gonzalez? Certainly not Washington, which has everything except Elian's interest in mind.