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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 1999 /1 Teves, 5760

Don Feder

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Send Elian back to Cuba and he'll end up Jose -- I WENT TO CUBA two years ago, so I know what's at stake in the international custody battle over little Elian Gonzalez. If he's returned to Castro's clutches, Elian could become the desperate young man I met my last evening in Havana.

On Nov. 25, the 6-year-old was found clinging to an inner tube, floating off the coast of Florida. His mother, stepfather and nine other would-be immigrants perished when the boat in which they were fleeing the workers' paradise sank.

Fidel -- who wavers between whining about the embargo and doing everything he can to validate his ongoing isolation -- demands the boy's return, supposedly to reunite him with his father. The dictator threatens massive street protests (yawn) if America doesn't comply.

You see, the Maximum Leader is a family-values kind of guy. He can't stand the thought of parents and children being seperated. Castro's own daughter, Alina Fernandez, escaped with a forged Spanish passport in 1993. Given that she refers to dear, old dad as the "executioner," he probably doesn't want her back.

While they're shaking their fists on command, many of Fidel's dragooned demonstrators will be silently praying that the child gets to stay with his "kidnapers," as Castro calls the lad's rescuers.

Elian can't be returned without a judicial hearing. (His Miami relatives are seeking custody.) Unlike Cuba, this is a nation of laws, where even non-citizens get due process.

If his father wants to come to Florida and argue the case for bringing Elian back with him to the slave state, he will be heard. If he's indigent (the average Cuban would have to strive to rise to the level of indigence), a court-appointed attorney will be provided.

Although it is within their power, it would be a travesty for the courts to send Elian back to Cuba. I know what his life will be like there. I've seen the gulag up close.

There's no future on the island.

After 40 years of doctrinaire Marxism, its economy stands in ruins. The average Cuban earns the equivalent of about $20 a month. If he's really smart and ambitious, and becomes a professional, Elian could make a whole $7 a week as a doctor or engineer -- providing he can find employment. Unless he's one of the elite who's paid in hard currency (allowing him to shop in special "dollar stores" reserved for tourists and the privileged), he'll live on a near-starvation diet and experience the chronic shortages of basic necessities that are a way of life in Castro's Cuba.

In elections, he'll get to choose between the Communist Party candidate and -- no one. If he expresses unorthodox opinions (say, in favor of human rights), he'll lose his job and goons from the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution or Rapid Deployment Brigades will stop by to correct him with fists and clubs, or trash his home.

Even before he reachs maturity, Elian will experience the joys of totalitarianism.

Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba explains that Cuban kids are indoctrinated from nursery school. In first grade, "children learn to read by reciting 'F as in Fidel,' 'R as in Raul' (Castro's brother and heir apparent), 'G as in guerrilla.'"

Maybe he'll be accepted into the Communist Pioneers, where he'll learn to rat on relatives who express subversive views. In Cuba, his only option will be joining the oppressor class or the oppressed class. He mother died so Elian wouldn't have to make that horrible choice.

The young man I met near the Hotel Nacionale during my visit to the island knew exactly what he wanted -- out. Handsome, funny, fluent in several languages, Jose came to Havana from a farming community to study chemistry then decided there was no future as a chemist, or anything else, in Cuba.

After a casual conversation, he opened up in a way that subjects of a police state shouldn't. "Man, you gotta get me out of here," Jose pleaded.

"I can't breathe. I don't want to end up like them," he said, pointing to middle-aged people shuffling by. "They're zombies. They have no hope, man -- nada."

I gave him $10 (lunch money for me, two-weeks' salary for the average Cuban) and the name of someone in the U.S. Interests Section, our ersatz embassy in Cuba, who might help with a visa.

Send Elian Gonzalez back to that? If they try, Cuban Americans should stop the boy's plane from taking off by lying down on the runway. At 73, Castro could hang on another 15 years, long enough for Elian to become Jose.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate