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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Cuban Boy's Case Is of Universal Importance




The saga of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy who survived the shipwreck of a small vessel carrying him and other Cubans fleeing Cuba for the United States - 11 people, including Elian's mother, drowned - has become a full-blown international incident. It is something about which I feel very deeply, because the ramifications of the ongoing legal and political battle over Elian's fate hit close to home.


You see, my wife is Russian. If you had told me 10 years ago that I, after two failed marriages in the United States, would meet, fall in love and get married to a woman from halfway around the world, I would have thought you were crazy, but such are the mysteries of love. Two beautiful children have sprung from this unlikely union, and therein lies the rub.


One of the most terrifying underlying fears of a mixed citizenship marriage is that if one of the parents should die, the government of the deceased parent would try to deny the surviving parent the right to raise the children in the country of that parent's citizenship. In the past, our fears have always concerned the Russian government, but the Elian Gonzalez case raises questions - and fears - about the United States government as well. If I were to die while our family was residing in the United States, would the American government deny my wife the right to bring our children back to Russia if she chose to do so?


Elian's case, on the surface, would seem to be simple. The boy's mother has tragically died. Elian's father, who was divorced from the mother, wishes to raise his son, as is his absolute right as a parent. The father, however, lives in Cuba, and Elian is in the United States. Distant relatives of Elian in the United States, spurred on by the rabidly anti-Castro Cuban-American community, have refused to allow the boy to return to his father, and the decades-old animosity between Cuba and the United States has turned the simple act of reuniting a boy with his father into an international political incident. The tragedy of the Elian Gonzalez case is that most of those who have interjected themselves into the situation seem to be motivated by considerations that have little or nothing to do with what's best for the boy.


Certainly, Fidel Castro has little concern for Elian's welfare. He has seized upon the event to mount a massive anti-American propaganda campaign in Cuba, which serves his interests, not Elian's. If he were truly concerned about the boy's fate, he would have muted the protests as counterproductive, and worked quietly through available diplomatic channels to assure Elian's return. Instead, he raised the political decibel level in Cuba to a fever pitch, which prompted a predictable Pavlovian response from the Cuban-American community and a number of American politicians.


The interference of the state into personal and family matters is one of the hallmarks of totalitarianism. It is truly ironic that the Cuban-American community - many of whom, presumably, left Cuba for the United States in order to live in a country where the rule of law prevailed and individual rights were protected - would attempt to use the power of the state to circumvent the law and deny Elian's father his individual rights as a parent. It is truly sad, but unfortunately not surprising, that some American politicians would be willing to aid and abet them in this effort.


American law is clear: In the absence of compelling evidence of parental unfitness, the parent speaks for the child. I have seen nothing that suggests that Elian's father is an unfit parent. On the contrary, he actively participated with his divorced wife in the upbringing of their son.


According to one report, he had custody of Elian for four days out of seven each week. The man I saw on CNN was not some communist automaton mouthing government propaganda. I saw a father who loved his son, a father indignant to the point of tears that some government - some foreign government, no less - was trying to keep him from the son he loved. I saw myself in Elian's father; his reaction was exactly what mine would be if I were faced with a similar situation. The argument against returning Elian to his father is not based on the father's fitness, but on his citizenship.


It is precisely because American law is so clear that those attempting to keep Elian in the United States have resorted to the abuse of state power to achieve their ends. An American politician, Richard Burton, first issued a subpoena to Elian to testify before Congress. Later, Burton admitted that the subpoena was not used to elicit testimony from a 6-year-old boy, but to subvert the legal process that was moving to send the boy home to his father.


Now, a number of other politicians have introduced a bill in the American Congress to grant Elian U.S. citizenship. They claim they are motivated by concern for the boy, that Elian would have greater opportunity growing up in the United States than in "communist" Cuba. If this were to become the determining criteria for whether a child should be raised by his natural parents or not, then the children of poor people in the United States should be taken from their parents and given to rich people who can give them a better "opportunity." Perhaps the CIA should start kidnapping children from countries at odds with the United States so they will have the benefit of growing up in America.


The possibilities are endless, and would be ludicrous were it not for the fact that the actions surrounding Elian make them terrifyingly real. The truth is, however, that the American politicians interjecting themselves and the state power they wield into the case are motivated by little more than the opportunity to score a few cheap political points in an election year.


Then there are Elian's "Miami relatives." They have achieved status and celebrity since the boy was dropped in their midst, and probably hefty financial benefits await them in the future. After all, we all know there will be Elian the Book, Elian the Movie, perhaps Elian the advertising pitch man for American products and the American way. And, of course, if he stays in the United States, then he must succeed, since the argument for his staying is based on that potential success, so no expense will be spared to ensure that Elian becomes a living embodiment of the American Dream.


The "Miami relatives" stand to gain from the largesse that will be inevitably bestowed on Elian. Of course, all this disappears for them if Elian returns to his father. Should there not be at least some question concerning how much these considerations motivate their desire to keep Elian under their roof?


The story of Elian Gonzalez is not about Cuba versus the United States, it is not about communism versus capitalism, it is not about freedom versus totalitarianism. It is about a father and his son, and their right to be together. Any attempt to characterize it differently is a travesty. Any attempt by the state to interfere with that right is an injustice.


Peter P. Mahoney is an American who lives and works in Moscow.