For a legacy-conscious president, Bill Clinton certainly blundered recently. His handling of the controversy involving of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez is a permanent blot on his record, putting as it did his own political priorities above the rights of young Elian.
Fortunately, U.S. lawmakers are countering the president’s decision with their own legislative action which could put Elian’s rights on firmer footing. And now a Florida state court has claimed jurisdiction over the case, appointing Elian’s Florida relatives his temporary guardians giving them a chance to make the case he should remain at a March 6 court hearing.
Elian has been the object of a media frenzy since he was rescued on Thanksgiving Day off the coast of Florida, after surviving two days and nights at sea gripping an inner-tube. Elian, along with 13 other Cubans, was aboard a U.S.-bound boat that capsized. His mother and his stepfather perished at sea, trying to get their small family to freedom. Elian’s father, meanwhile, is alive in Cuba and has publicly insisted that he wants his child back.
Regardless of political affiliation, U.S. lawmakers say Elian should have a day in U.S. courts. After Elian was initially rescued, the White House agreed with this rather obvious course. After Mr. Castro successfully spearheaded massive protests calling for Elian’s return, the White House, in an attempt to placate the Cuban dictator, cited an absurd technicality and claimed that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) should have jurisdiction over Elian’s case. In doing so, the Clinton administration politicized the case and denied Elian his rights. The New York Times reported that the administration was concerned the controversy would jeopardize Mr. Clinton’s efforts to expand U.S. relations with Cuba and that the decision to turn young Elian over to the INS was made by high-ranking, albeit unnamed, administration officials.
Earlier this month, the INS, which is a division of the Justice Department, set a Jan. 14 deadline for Elian to be sent back to his father in Cuba. According to Attorney General Janet Reno, INS investigators who met with Elian’s father were convinced he was speaking for himself, and not the government of President Fidel Castro. What Miss Reno failed to specify, however, was how they could guarantee that Elian’s father was stating his true desires for the child when he lives under a dictatorship that crushes dissent of any kind with the most brutal repression. Miss Reno should explain to the American public that Mr. Gonzalez is hardly in a position to say he wants Elian to stay in the United States, given that Mr. Castro is orchestrating massive demonstrations calling for his return.
Even Vice President Al Gore strongly suggested last week that he believes the courts should decide custody over Elian. “What are the best interests of the child? When that question is posed in other cases, courts competent to make that determination are given the responsibility for the decision,” Mr. Gore said.
In order to help guarantee Elian gets his day in court, Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has issued Elian a subpoena, commanding his appearance before Congress next month. The ruling Monday by Miami-Dade Judge Rosa Rodriguez setting the March 6 court date could delay matters further. In addition, Sen. Jesse Helms has told Miss Reno that he intends to offer legislation this month to grant U.S. citizenship to Elian.
One would hope the efforts of these lawmakers and judges would give Elian his day in court and, further, that history would record the White House’s irresponsible handling of a boy whose family wanted only that he enjoy the same freedom and opportunity that Mr. Clinton today takes for granted.