- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2000

The start of a new year is always a somber anniversary for many Cubans. Shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro took control over their island. Some Cubans fled the country that same night with nothing but the party clothes on their backs.

Wednesday, just a few days into a new year and millennium, Cuban-Americans were hit with some saddening news of a different sort. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has decided that Elian Gonzalez, who has captured the hearts of so many, will be sent back to Cuba where his father lives. A crowd of Cuban Americans, some holding Cuban flags, listened in silence outside the INS office in Miami to a live broadcast of INS statements and broke into shouts of "freedom" and "he must stay" after the agency came to a decision.

Elian became something of a celebrity after he was rescued on Thanksgiving day off the coast of Florida, having survived two days and nights at sea on an inner-tube after the boat on which he and his mother and stepfather were fleeing Cuba capsized. His mother and stepfather, who dreamed of a newer, freer life in the United States, died in the accident. Elian is currently living with relatives in Miami, who are fighting to keep the child with them in the United States.

Elian's case highlights much of what is wrong with Castro-controlled Cuba. On the island, he would be schooled in Nazi-like re-education camps promoting government propaganda. His will to pursue economic prosperity would be curtailed by the regime. Certain unalienable rights that are routinely taken for granted in the United States, such as freedom of speech and pursuit of happiness, are suppressed in Cuba. If he ever dared to speak out against the Castro regime, he could be incarcerated, or worse.

For many Americans, especially those of Cuban descent, it would be heartbreaking to send young Elian back to Castro's Cuba. His mother gave her life trying to get him out and he is surrounded by loving family in Miami, who will appeal the decision to send Elian back to Cuba.

Certainly, the wishes of Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, should be weighed and given their due importance. The rights of the natural father cannot be underestimated, as any American parent imagining a similar situation would know. Many would obviously insist on the return of their child, but some might decide that personal sacrifice would be better in the long run, and want the youngster to grow up in a free society.

But the realities under which Mr. Gonzalez lives shouldn't be wistfully ignored. Mr. Castro has made it quite clear that he wants Elian returned to Cuba, and Mr. Gonzalez clearly isn't free to say otherwise. Cuba is considering a U.S. request to allow Mr. Gonzalez to travel to the United States himself to pick him up. However, Elian's father, who has a second wife and infant in Cuba, certainly understands that they are, in effect, hostages to Mr. Castro's demands.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration appears more interested in appeasing Mr. Castro than protecting Elian's best interests. By giving the INS jurisdiction over custody of Elian, rather than state courts, which would look at the child's true interests first, the White House has politicized the case. In a statement that smacked of sterile insensitivity, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that while the INS made the appropriate decision, "there are certain obvious benefits to anyone to grow up in a society that's free and open, that enjoy the kind of freedoms that Americans do." That wasn't similarly "obvious" to the White House.

The Cuban-American champions of Elian's rights have often been cast in a negative light in the press. Reuters stories that ran Wednesday said that Elian's relatives and Cuban exiles living in Miami "have adopted [Elian] as a mascot" and "paraded Elian before TV cameras enjoying the trappings of a U.S. upbringing. He was showered with toys, taken on a highly publicized trip to Disney World, and visited by anti-Castro U.S. politicians." These Cuban-Americans, who hear frequently from their relatives back home, know firsthand about the suffering that living in Cuba causes. They also seem to understand, better than many, just what makes a U.S. upbringing so precious.

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