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Jewish World ReviewDec. 15, 1999/ 6 Teves, 5760

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Elian Gonzales, poster boy -- literally -- of the fathers' movement? --
THE CASE OF ELIAN GONZALES, the six-year-old who miraculously survived a journey from Cuba on which his mother drowned, is causing strong emotions. Some, above all the Cuban exiles in Miami where the boy is staying with relatives, believe that he must remain in the United States, even though his father is in Cuba and wants his son back. Others insist that a child's bond with his only surviving parent takes precedence over politics. And many in the fathers' movement claim that this is not just a parents' rights issue but a fathers' rights issue.

The sentiment that the boy and his father belong together is understandable. What's troubling is that some people who take this view seem eager to gloss over the nature of the Cuban regime. They piously intone that the material benefits life in the U.S. could offer little Elian are far less important than the love of a caring father.

Actually, it looks like the Gonzalez family has a pretty good life by Cuban standards. But there is something else besides material benefits that has compelled men and women to flee communist regimes: freedom. It's not just an abstract idea. It means being not being forced to profess allegiance to a dictator, being able to read books and newspapers without state censorship, being able to go to church without fear of persecution.

Before you tell me that we're no longer the land of the free, I'll be the first to say that personal liberties in America have been dangerously eroded. But no moral equivalency, please. Walking with a limp is not the same as having no legs.

Yet here is the usually sensible columnist William Raspberry fretting that our reaction would have been different if the child had been Canadian, and that Cuba's involvement "cloud[s] our judgment." You'd think our problem with the Cuban regime was some odd quirk, such as disliking the colors of their flag. Others cry that we can't refuse to send a child home because of his country's political system. That's like saying that a robber shouldn't be denied custody of her children because of her profession.

Some of my friends and allies in the fathers' rights movement argue that the case demonstrates our society's gender bias against fathers. Had the parents' roles been reversed, they say, Elian would have been returned to Mom in Cuba before you could say Fidel Castro.

But absent such a test case, we'll never know. Elian's relatives in Miami -- the father's uncle and aunt -- have been able to keep the boy because U.S. law grants nearly automatic residency to any Cuban reaching U.S. shores. In the 1980s, the U.S. courts ruled that a child's right not to live under a communist dictatorship took precedence over _both_ parents' rights, granting the request of 12-year-old Walter Polovchak to stay in the custody of the state of Illinois after his emigre parents returned to the Soviet Union.

Those who oppose sending Elian back have generally refrained from questioning the father's fitness or his love for the boy; instead, they argue that he should be able to travel to the U.S. and to choose, Fidel breathing down his neck, whether he wants to take the boy home or to stay here with him.

Unquestionably, when fathers and mothers wrangle over custody, our society tends to be biased against men. When the mother is dead, however, the law and public opinion generally assumes that custody will go to the only living parent. It takes something drastic to override that presumption -- for instance, if the father lives in a country where both parents and children are treated as state property.

Forget the silly analogy of a Canadian mother. Suppose this boy had been born a slave in the American South 150 years ago, and his mother had died while spiriting him away to freedom while his father had remained on the plantation. Suppose the master was demanding the child's return, cynically invoking the father's love for his child. Should that boy have been sent back to slavery?

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.

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©1999, Cathy Young