- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2000

Juan Miguel Gonzalez first insisted that he would wait for U.S. officials to send his six-year-old son home to Havana. Now he has come to fetch Elian.

And how do we know this? Why, the same way we know everything else about Cuba: the lider maximo said so. Fidel Castro said that Juan Miguel Gonzalez "wanted" to come, and moreover wanted to be accompanied by half the members of Elian's class and "psychologists." The services of a powerful Washington attorney, Gregory Craig, and the support of the attorney general of the United States, Janet Reno, were insufficient. Americans take it for granted that a father and his young son should be reunited, particularly after being separated in the dramatic circumstances of the Gonzalez family's tragedy. And indeed, a few weeks ago when Elian's grandmothers came to the United States to visit with him, they were welcomed respectfully by officials and with flowers and kindness by private citizens.

But then an odd thing happened. The grandmothers' awkward visit with Elian, their bizarre claim upon returning to Havana that he was "not himself," did not jibe with the picture, frequently broadcast and reported, of a little boy whose situation was certainly tragic but who was anything but badly cared for or unhappy.

Sensing the shifting mood in the audience for the spectacle he had created, Mr. Castro radically changed his act. No longer exhorting the crowds to demand that the imperialists send their little captive home, this man who would have been a circus ringmaster were he not a born demagogue, said the father would go get him. Mr. Gonzalez immediately applied for a visa.

Imagine a custody dispute involving an American child in Canada. Is it remotely imaginable that President Clinton would inject himself into the matter, to the point of announcing that the aggrieved parent was on his way to press his claim?

And what about Elian's classmates? Were they consulted? Were their parents? Whose idea was it to take them out of school? Who, in fact, has custody over Elian's classmates?

Surely there are many Cuban American families and well-intentioned church groups who would be only too happy to host Cuban children, treat them to a visit to Disney World, buy them a few of the things they need but that their parents unless they are among the few Cubans with access to foreign currency stores cannot get them. The invitations are always standing. But it takes, evidently, a decision by the supreme boss to get the wheels turning.

Let's be serious. Juan Miguel is not in charge of his son's destiny. The question is not who has custody over the child. If it were, the U.S. attorney general surely knows better than to interfere with the workings of the U.S. judicial system, which can decide in due course. The real question is who has custody over Elian's father who is really making the decisions here. And it would seem the answer is before us, just from the way the spectacle has been unfolding. Why is Janet Reno in such a hurry to expedite this case? The last time she sought to resolve a crisis involving children, the precipitate action led to a tragedy for which she profusely apologized. We will not know for sure until the relevant official documentation is released, but there is reason to believe Mr. Castro has made it known that if he does not have his will with Elian, he will unleash a refugee crisis another Mariel on south Florida. He has repeatedly shown his cynical willingness to use this "weapon."

No responsible American official can ignore the threat of a refugee crisis. But no American official can permit blackmail to become the coin of U.S.-Cuban relations. Elian risks being turned into an offering to calm the anger of a strange god in Havana. In a presidential election year during which candidates seek to outdo one another in championing the causes of children, sending Elian to a sacrificial altar will be a grotesque finale for an outgoing administration.

Frank Calzon is Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

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