- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2000

In order to escape Cuba, the islands' residents have to face shark infested waters in boats often too flimsy to weather a storm. Cubans confront this life-threatening journey because their freedoms are suppressed by that country's dictator.

Rarely, however, does the Cuban government explicitly acknowledge its own repressive policies. Last week a prominent Cuban official gave the world a privileged view of a government policy that is typically left unstated.

The case, as The New York Times reported, was the one of Jose Cohen, who escaped Cuba on a raft in 1994. His wife and three children in Cuba were given U.S. visas in 1998, but the government would not allow them to leave and still won't. When asked about Mr. Cohen's case, the leader of Cuba's National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon told The New York Times, "I imagine he left his children here. Nobody took them away from him. He left them here."

It is clear, from Mr. Alarcon's statement, that the regime keeps families separated quite deliberately, as a matter of course, to retaliate against "deserters." The rest of the world apparently has a strict obligation to return individuals to Cuba to reunite families, but the regime has no such responsibility to other countries. It is difficult to fathom how such an unbalanced view could be a government's official policy.

In the past, when the Cuban government justified its callousness in keeping families apart, it often cited security concerns. The regime uses this pretext even when the individuals in question don't work in areas that could be considered remotely sensitive. Before Mr. Alarcon's comments, the regime wouldn't explicitly acknowledge that it intentionally separated families.

In an e-mail, Mr. Cohen responded to Mr. Alarcon's comments. "Look Alarcon, if you aren't capable of respecting yourself, at least be capable of respecting two old people, a woman and three defenseless children who have decided, at all costs, to insist upon a tyrant their right to be free," he said. Mr. Alarcon will probably remain unmoved by Mr. Cohen's plea. After all, his case is only one of a great many.

The Cuban government is holding hostage an unknown number of residents who are desperately seeking to be reunited with family members outside Cuba. According to the State Department, only last year 1,700 people with valid U.S. visas were unable to leave Cuba. Why hasn't the National Council of Churches, which has lobbied to get Elian Gonzalez returned to his biological father in Cuba, spoken out against this injustice?

Elian Gonzalez was brought to the United States after surviving a shipwreck that took his mother's life. Elian's relatives in Miami have filed for permanent custody of him while his father has insisted he wants his child returned to him. Mr. Castro has made Elian's return to Cuba a top national priority. He has called on the White House to send Elian back and has orchestrated huge demonstrations in Cuba demanding his return.

All of this could backfire. The publicity generated by the Elian case could increasingly highlight repression in Cuba. Mr. Cohen's case became newsworthy precisely because of Elian. It will not be the only one, as more and more separated Cuban families take to the media to plead their case. Full of strange and bizarre twists and turns as Elian's case is, some good might still come out of it.

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