- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 12, 2000

If Cubans disagree with Mr. Castro, they bite their tongues. This is well known. What wasn't common knowledge, until now, is the Cuban practice of biting other people's tongues. That seems to be a new, hitherto unknown custom. Another new Cuban tradition is for grandmothers to unzip the pants of their grandchildren and examine their private parts. Playing doctor between grandma and grandchild may seem worrisome to many, but some "experts" insist it is just a harmless, Cuban cultural trait.

These so-called customs came to the fore earlier this month when one of Elian Gonzalez's grandmothers described in a television interview her visit with her grandson in Miami. Six-year-old Elian was brought to the United States after surviving two days and nights at sea gripping an inner-tube on Thanksgiving Day. His mother and stepfather perished at sea, after their U.S.-bound boat capsized. The boy has been living with relatives in Miami, who have petitioned for permanent custody of the boy. Elian's father, who lives in Cuba, has repeatedly said he wants the child sent back to him. The boy's grandmothers visited the United States from Miami to press for Elian's return to his father.

As it turns out, the visit could have been counterproductive. In an interview with Cuban state television, Elian's grandmother Mariela Quintana said that she tried to cheer up her grandchild during her visit because he seemed sad and timid. "We'd joked at the beginning about how he'd lost his tongue, so I got his tongue out of his mouth and I bit it, I started teasing him, I even opened his fly, I said, 'Let me look' … at his parts … 'Let's see if it's grown,' you know, teasing him to cheer him up," Mrs. Quintana said.

Elian's family in Miami was outraged at the grandmothers' account of the visit. They have filed a police complaint against Mrs. Quintana. In the face of reports that Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, the patriarch of the boy's Miami family, has has a record of being arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, it is important to take a closer look at the family Elian would be returning to in Cuba.

There are a host of experts who argue that the grandmothers' behavior is of no concern. Max Castro, a professor at the University of Miami North-South Center and a Cuban-American, said "I think it is a rural thing, a class or cultural thing," reported The Washington Times. "It is not something that anyone in Cuba would regard as a great transgression."

There are many Cubans who would take offense at Mr. Castro's statement. "I would challenge anyone to find any reference to playful tongue biting or genital inspection in the thousands of books that have been written about Cuban culture," said Frank Calzon, the executive director of Free Cuba.

The reaction to Mrs. Quintana's "teasing" of Elian demonstrates just how politicized the case has become. It would seem that the grandmothers' behavior would generate wide consensus on its potentially harmful effect on Elian. Instead, those in favor of sending Elian back to Cuba without a custody trial are shrugging off the incident.

There are also other signs of how politicized the Elian debate has become. Shortly after Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, the president of Barry University, was chosen as a neutral host for the meeting between Elian and his grandmothers, she decided she couldn't remain neutral. She witnessed an aura of fear over the reunion and the unsettling, intrusive presence of Mr. Castro's men. She felt a responsibility to voice her impressions about what she witnessed. For this, she has been scorned.

"Never in my wildest imagination," said Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, "would I think that a nun who was supposed to be a neutral party would undermine that neutrality." Mrs. Waters' imagination is apparently not wild enough to fathom a person voicing their convictions. If Mrs. Waters has a problem with people speaking out when it is politically inconvenient to her, she might feel more at home in Cuba.

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