One thing in which I always had confidence was average American's innate sense of fairness. Of course this always gets influenced, manipulated and distorted by propaganda from the government, media and various interest groups. So it surprises me to see that the public did not come to the aid of Juan Miguel Gonzalez before anti-Cuba forces unleashed their propaganda. Or perhaps it's the lack of coverage in the Canadian media of any such outcry. I hope it's the latter.
Gonzalez is the biological father of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez who survived the treacherous and dangerous crossing from Cuba to the land of the free. Elian's mother, stepfather and nine others died when their boat sank. By the grace of God, the boy was discovered by fishermen on Thanksgiving Day.
Since then, the boy has been at the center of an international tug of war between Cuba and the United States. Until late Wednesday, both countries shamelessly used the boy as a political pawn. The Cuban exile group, the Cuban American National Foundation, was quick to make Elian their poster boy. In anticipation of a Fidel Castro appearance at the WTO conference in Seattle, they reportedly distributed thousands of posters bearing the child's photograph at anti-Castro protests.
Elian's extended relatives in Miami, part of the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, wish to keep him in the United States, citing his best interests as their motivation. They allege that his father does not want him back because Elian would live in horrible conditions. But his father says that he indeed does want his son and claims that the boy's mother removed him from Cuba without his permission. The relatives contend that Juan is being forced by Cuban officials to ask for him back and that in actuality he wishes for Elian to live in Miami.
The relatives claim that the child now wants to live in Miami. In fact, the child confirmed this to reporters. But what is to be expected from a child who went through a traumatic experience, including watching his mother die, and is now showered with love, attention and gifts?
There clearly was no need to drag this out for so long. U.S. immigration policy makes it clear Cuban boat people that don't make it to shore are returned. Sure, exceptions can be made, as they should. But when a claim was asserted by the boy's biological father, officials should have moved quickly to verify his claim and return the child forthwith before he established any ties or roots.
Custody rules under international law, U.S. law, Cuban law, as well as common sense dictate that the child be returned to the father. Yet, some claim that returning the child is denying him a better future. So what? Will the proponents of this view allow all children from the developing world living in conditions far worse than Cuba into the U.S.? Is it not in the best interest of the children to be living in freedom and economic prosperity? Heck, why wait till they get here? Why not send in the marines to rescue these children; for their best interest, of course.
Cuba, in this situation, has unfortunately been no better than the United States. Cuban President Fidel Castro's inflammatory rhetoric has only reinforced the United States' initial refusal to return the child. At the same time, such a reaction should have been expected. After all, Cuba does not have the military might or sophisticated propaganda machinery to get even. Imagine if the situation were reversed. Perhaps the marines would have gone in and searched every school and day-care center for the boy or maybe cruise missiles would have rained down on Havana. At least some would have called for such moves. It was not so long ago that troops were sent in to save some American medical students in Grenada. Or consider the reception that the movie Not Without My Daughter received among the general public. Americans are no different from Cubans when it comes to national pride.
Thankfully, there is some hint that U.S. officials are looking into returning the child to his father. The longer he stays the more likely that legal technicians will find ways to extend and complicate any attempts to send him back. It's time to do the right thing.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs