Elian Gonzalez has become a pawn. The six-year-old Cuba boy was rescued Thanksgiving day by the U.S. Coast Guard off the coast of Florida after surviving two harrowing days at sea, clinging to an inner tube. To U.S. and Cuban governments, however, he is not a young individual whose rights should be respected. He is merely a vehicle for reaching political ends.
Elian’s mother and stepfather perished at sea when an overloaded power boat holding thirteen Cuban refugees capsized. The boy’s father claims he wants Elian to return to Cuba. The boy’s great-aunt and great-uncle in Miami have also petitioned Florida state courts to have permanent custody of him.
The White House insists that in deciding custody of Elian, it will uphold the best interests of the child. It has become increasingly clear, however, that the administration is pursuing what best serves of U.S.-Cuban relations. This is a tragic turn of events for a courageous little boy.
Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has orchestrated massive anti-U.S. public protests over U.S. refusals to have Elian returned to Cuba without due process. Mr. Castro should be careful lest his people take a liking to public demonstrations. The United States, meanwhile, shouldn’t be bullied by the dictator’s posturing.
This, however, hasn’t been the U.S. reaction. Instead, the White House has taken a series of steps to politicize the case. In a reversal of policy, U.S. officials said the Justice Department rather than state courts in Florida will decide the future of Elian Gonzalez. The Justice Department has concocted a convoluted legal argument for sending Elian back to Cuba.
Cubans who reach U.S. soil normally are “paroled” into the United States, a procedure that permits them to live in the country for one year before their immigration status is decided. But Justice Department officials have argued that since Elian was taken directly to a hospital, he was therefore never formally paroled into the country even though he was later turned over to his relatives in Miami. INS officials have similarly said they were not legally obliged to let Elian remain in the United States because he was given only temporary entry. Interestingly, INS spokesman Mike Gilhooly told The Washington Times that he knew of no previous case where a Cuban refugee had been given a deferred inspection and was later forced to return to Cuba.
“The question is and I think the most important thing is what would be best for the child. And there is a legal process for determining that,” said President Clinton last week. Well, the fact that Elian would be sent back to a country ruled by a brutal dictator ought to figure into legal considerations. This detail hasn’t been explicitly recognized by Mr. Clinton, the Justice Department, or the INS.
The Cuban government has responded to the administration’s overtures rather uncooperatively. Last week, the Cuban government blocked delivery of a letter from the State Department to Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, asking him to present proof that he is the father of Elian. In this repressive context, it is still quite unclear what Mr. Gonzalez truly wants for his boy.
Elian deserves to have his rights under American law upheld. Beyond that, he deserves a process that looks at what is in his best interests, taking all the aspects of the case into account.