' Mona Charen
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Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 1999 /6 Teves, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Elian's best interests

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
ONE NEED NOT be soft on Castro to notice that the conduct of Elian Gonzalez's American relatives has been crass.

The child has just endured one of the most harrowing experiences imaginable -- watching his mother, step-father and 11 other people drown and then floating for more than 24 hours in an inner tube before being rescued.

Elian is probably traumatized, grieving and confused beyond measure. We don't know what transpired on that boat during the last moments, but we can guess that Elizabet Broton, Elian's mother, probably secured him in that inner tube as best she could before going down herself.

Now Elian is an international celebrity and a political football, and what do his American relatives do? They shower him with new toys and then drag him to Disney World, with cameras trailing and journalists scribbling down his every word. Of course there's nothing wrong with visiting Disney World -- at the right time. For a child in the first throes of grief, Mickey Mouse is unseemly. Besides, must we buy loyalty?

Presidential candidates George W. Bush and John McCain, along with several others including Vice President Al Gore, have recommended that the State Department offer a visa to Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father, so that he can, in George W's phrase, "breathe the air of freedom" and then decide what he wants to do.

But this solution has some flaws. Gonzalez has remarried and is now living with his new wife and young daughter. Would all be offered visas? And then there is the further problem of the way Cuba does business. As the Cuban Americans in Miami have argued, it would be impossible to know whether the elder Gonzalez was speaking freely -- even on U.S. soil -- if there remain in Cuba any other relatives against whom the Castro regime could retaliate.

Now the visa list gets quite long indeed. There are grandparents and brothers and sisters and their families -- and where does it end?

Elian's case illuminates the fact that Cuba is one large prison. Fidel Castro, in what psychologists might call a classic case of projection, blames the United States for the fact that so many of his captive people are willing to risk their lives for the chance to make it to Florida alive. It's American radio broadcasts, Castro whines, telling Cubans how abysmal their economy is, that makes them so desperate to leave. And besides, he urges, without the American boycott, Cuba would not be in such terrible economic shape.

Leaving aside the efficacy of the boycott (it is certainly clear, after 40 years, that the policy has accomplished neither Castro's ouster nor liberalization), it is almost funny to hear Castro assign blame for his economic troubles to the United States. Who can name a single communist country that ever prospered economically?

There is no doubt that the proximity of Florida makes it a permanent lure for Cubans. Already this year, more than 2000 Cubans have attempted to cross the 90-mile strait, and in 1998, the last time a visa lottery was held for Cuba, more than 500,000 people applied for the chance to come to the United States -- nearly 5 percent of the nation's population.

People don't take to the sea in leaky boats because their minds have been controlled by propaganda. They do it for freedom, and yes, also for the chance at a decent standard of living. Even Castro's own daughter, Alina Fernandez, fled the country in 1983 -- though she did not suffer the kind of privation ordinary Cubans do.

Elian is only 6. Political freedom means nothing to him now. But someday it will matter, perhaps a great deal. Those who say that politics should not contaminate the decision about Elian's fate are overlooking this: It is politics -- the politics of intimidation and terror as practiced by Castro -- that makes it so difficult to determine Elian's best interests.

Juan Gonzalez may be sincere in saying that he wants his son back in Cuba (though early reports said he was glad Elian had made it to America), but Castro's methods must keep us permanently skeptical.

Elizabet Broton gave her life to give Elian freedom. We should do everything possible to give Juan Gonzalez and his entire extended family (if necessary) the same gift so that she will not have sacrificed herself in vain.


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