Just what the Republican congressional leadership wanted: the wrong side of another 62 percent approval rating. In this case, it’s the approval Americans express in polls for the raid by federal agents on the home of Elian Gonzalez’ Miami relatives in order to reunite the 6-year-old shipwreck survivor with his father.
Conservative Republicans, outraged by the photograph of the gun-toting federal agent confronting a frightened Elian and the man who rescued him from the sea, are demanding that Congress hold hearings. Democrats, with a few exceptions, are content to let the matter drop, and some have even taken to taunting the GOP over the fact that opinion is running favorable to the Justice Department and the Clinton administration in general: There they go again, preparing to immolate themselves for the sake of ideological purity by taking on the American people.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Orrin Hatch, is promising only a review of material turned over by the administration to determine whether hearings are warranted. This is hardly going to satisfy those, such as Diana Furchtgott-Roth, writing on this page yesterday, who would like to see the congressional subpoenas rolling out for Elian, his father and his Miami relatives.
The latter is unlikely, to put it mildly. But this is a real test for the Republican congressional majorities. Have they learned enough about oversight in their five and a half years in the majority to give them the ability to proceed on matters of principle, against public opinion, without unduly angering those initially inclined against them, while satisfying the concerns of their allies? It’s a tall order. But it’s probably worth noting that Democrats used to be pretty good at that sort of thing during their years in the majority.
If Republicans are prepared to live with a frustrated GOP base, they will do nothing much at all. If they want to do everything in their power to antagonize majority opinion, on the other hand, they will ensure that Americans see them first and foremost as interposing themselves between father and son, second as continuing a vendetta against the administration. They could do this by speculating groundlessly about the sincerity of the affection in the pictures of the reunited father and son, about Juan Miguel’s fitness to be a father, and about the supposed implications of the fact that Greg Craig served as Mr. Clinton’s principal impeachment defense lawyer before signing on to represent Juan Miguel.
But these hardly exhaust the oversight possibilities. There are two great untold stories here, both with substantial human drama, both on subjects on which the American people could really benefit from a refresher course. The first is life in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The second is the story of the Cuban-American community in the United States.
Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, let us not forget those who still languish under communist dictatorship and what that means. It is time for a primer on communist repression, and probably the best people to tell the tale are those who have been victims of it. Cuba is the least free county in the Western hemisphere, according to the respected annual survey of political and civil liberties conducted by Freedom House in New York. Moreover, the past two decades have seen a substantial flourishing of liberty in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Mr. Castro is a holdout dictator, uniquely determined to use the means of political repression at his disposal in order to maintain his power. It would be extremely helpful to discuss the human cost of this repression.
The Cuban-American story is the story of the escape from that repression and the swift rise of members of the community to positions of success in a new country. As the Elian case has unfolded, it has been open season on Cuban-Americans, who have been subject to the worst stereotyping on the basis of national origin of any group since Haitians were blamed for AIDS in the 1980s. In fact, the Cuban-American community has produced inspiring success stories as it has revitalized an American city. Let’s hear Cuban-Americans tell the tale, from professors to politicians to businessmen to baseball players.
What the case of Elian Gonzalez lacks is context. The issue is not whether a father loves his son and should be with him or at least, if that’s the entirety of the matter, it’s a foregone conclusion. But we wouldn’t (I hope) send a Tutsi boy back to Rwanda to be with his father in the middle of the Hutus’ mass slaughter, nor a Kurdish boy back to his father in Northern Iraq while Saddam Hussein was using poison gas on the people there. Are conditions in Cuba as bad as that? That’s an entirely fair question. But we have at least established that there is no categorical imperative for father-son reunification, but rather the beginning of a serious moral inquiry involving a very real conflict between freedom and parental claims. That context is currently eluding vast numbers of Americans, and a competent Congress ought to be able to provide it without committing political suicide in the process.