- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2000

In demanding that 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez be returned to his father in Cuba, President Fidel Castro has portrayed himself as a champion of the family. But parents and children split by his communist regime see the claims as a cruel joke.

For as long as Mr. Castro has been in power, his government has separated families as a way of punishing those not in step with the revolution, victims say.

"He doesn't care about kids. The idea that he is fighting for family unification is a laugh," said former Cuban air force Maj. Orestes Lorenzo.

When Mr. Lorenzo flew his MiG fighter from Cuba and defected to the United States in 1991, Cuban government officials sneered triumphantly that he would never see his family again.

Mr. Lorenzo got the last laugh by flying an aging Cessna to a rural highway outside Havana, picking up his wife and two children and escaping to Florida, where they now live.

Most have not been so lucky.

"I call my mom and my dad, but they haven't been able to come," said Jennifer Moliner, a fifth-grade student in Miami who escaped to the United States on a raft with her grandparents in 1994.

"The government is keeping them there. They tried to get [a visa], but they can't," she said by telephone earlier this week.

According to the newly published "Black Book of Communism," some 15,000 Cubans were executed in the early days of the Castro regime five times the number killed in Chile during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Castro critics readily point out that killing people is the ultimate destruction of families.

Since the 1959 Cuban revolution, nearly 20 percent of the Cuban population has fled.

Shortly after Mr. Castro took power, 14,000 Cuban children were airlifted to the United States in Operation Peter Pan.

But when the 1962 Cuban missile crisis erupted, Mr. Castro prevented the children's parents from joining them and most of the children grew up as orphans of the Cold War.

Cuban-Americans often refer to the 1994 sinking by the Cuban coast guard of the "March 13th" tugboat, in which 40 persons, including 20 children, drowned.

"Thousands of children have died in the Florida Strait without a single mention in Cuban newspapers. If Elian had died out there, no one in Cuba would be protesting today," said Mr. Lorenzo.

In a practice condemned by international human rights organizations, Cuba often offers dissidents the choice of jail or exile.

As a result, Cuban exiles in the United States and Europe often live lonely lives, waiting by the phone for years for word that their children, their spouses or parents will finally be allowed to join them.

Luis Grave de Peralta was a political prisoner serving a 13-year sentence until his release was negotiated by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, then a member of Congress from New Mexico, in 1996.

Today, Mr. Peralta lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he is studying for his doctoral degree in physics. Upon his release, he was promised by Mr. Richardson and the Cuban government that his family in Santiago de Cuba would follow, but he is still waiting.

His sons, now 8 and 12, have been given exit visas, but their mother is being held for "state security reasons," said Mr. Peralta, in a telephone interview.

"She is an English teacher in a medical school. They say she knows state secrets and can't leave."

Dr. Hilda Molina, a world-renowned neurosurgeon and a former member of the Cuban parliament, was able to travel abroad until 10 years ago when she denounced Cuba for reserving its best medical facilities for dollar-paying foreigners.

"I implore you not to let your government be known for destroying a poor, humble but honorable and decent family," she wrote in a 1996 letter to Mr. Castro, one of many appeals to visit her son and grandson in Argentina.

There are thousands of others, including:

* Milagros Cruz Cano, a blind dissident forced to leave for the United States in October, but not allowed to take her 9-year-old daughter, Noemi, with her. Before she left, Noemi begged her mother: "Dress me up as a seeing-eye dog, so I can go with you."

* Jose Cohen Valdes, who escaped Cuba on a raft in 1994. His wife and three children, ages 8, 12, and 15, have been granted political refugee visas by the United States. The Cuban government refuses to issue exit permits.

* The family of internationally renowned saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, forbidden from joining him for eight years after his defection.

Mr. Lorenzo, and others, said Mr. Castro has taken up the boy's cause in order to deflect growing international criticism of Cuba's human rights record.

Cuba was condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva last March and at the Ibero-American Summit in Havana in November.

"Castro doesn't care about families. He is using Elian to change the subject," said Mr. Lorenzo.

A State Department official, on the condition of anonymity, said at least 100 dissidents had been arrested in Cuba in the past two months.

"The demonstrations have everyone's attention. Who is talking about those dissidents now?" he asked.

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