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Jewish World Review April 14, 2000 /9 Nissan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The tragedy may only have begun -- TO MIRACULOUSLY draw a small child from the waters after his escape from a prison isle, and then turn around and sentence him to life there. ... It is a remarkably ironic result.

But the most remarkable aspect of the case of the State, whether Cuban or American, vs. Elian Gonzales is how far removed the result is from the neutral language and almost antiseptic legal reasoning being used to produce it.

To listen to Janet Reno, you would think this little boy was being sent to live in another part of the United States. Or maybe to a country like England or Italy. Instead, he is headed back to one of the few perfectly preserved little stalinist gulags left in the world.

You would never guess as much to hear our attorney general. She offers this little analogy to explain what's about to happen to Elian:

Suppose an accident killed a mother, badly injured a father, but spared their son. (No need to go into detail, namely that the mother was fleeing a police state with the child.) And then the boy "went to live with Aunt Lucy, who's rich, lived in a big house, had moderate public opinions and did everything just right by the little boy.''

But when the father came for the boy, General Reno continues, "Aunt Lucy said, `No, I can far better raise this boy. To take him away from me now would be terribly damaging to him psychologically. I can do better by him ... and I don't like the father's political beliefs.' To say that father couldn't get that child back in those circumstances tears at the very fabric of the family relationship. We have got to have some presumption in favor of the family and of parents.''

End of fable. And back to the real world: Do you think Janet Reno really believes there is no essential difference between living in Miami and Havana, other than the material disparity, and, oh yes, a certain, shall we say, immoderation in the Cuban regime's beliefs?

Or does she simply think her American audience will believe that?

And maybe we will. According to the polls, a majority of Americans would send Elian back to Cuba. As for the political system that awaits him there, maybe we'd all rather not think about it.

Or as one of our letter-writers put it in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week, "I don't know much about Castro, only what our government tells me. And Clinton leads our government.''

To quote one student of Cuban affairs, Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, "one cannot but be struck by the incuriosity of many Americans -- particularly those most anxious to send Elian back --as to just why it was that his mother risked and lost her life on his behalf. Although poverty, even extreme poverty, exists in many other countries in and around the Caribbean, only in Cuba are misery and helplessness and unfreedom a deliberate government policy, implemented with unusually un-Latin thoroughness.''

Anyone ready to ship Elian back might look first at the Cuban regime's Code of the Child, in which it is made clear that no presumption in favor of the parents exists in Cuban law, or rather decree. The child is there to be molded by the state, and to serve the Party.

An American clergyman -- the Reverend Kilari Anand Paul of a pacifist outfit in Texas, the Global Peace Initiative -- visited Cuba just last month with, he said, "an open mind, and with the desire to achieve family reunification'' for Elian.

He came back stunned. "I have visited numerous countries that suffer oppressive political regimes,'' said the reverend, "but never have I felt the level of repression, control and intimidation over people that I felt in Cuba.'' (He must never have visited North Korea, or the Soviet Union in its bleak heyday.)

The best guide to any of the world's remaining stalinist states is still George Orwell's "1984,'' right down to the telescreens blaring Big Brother's latest five-hour speech. No wonder an underground saying is spreading in Cuba: Elian, amigo, llevame contigo! "Elian, be a pal, take me with you!''

But none of this comes through Janet Reno's simple little stories about Aunt Lucy, who is starting to sound a little like Lady Liberty, lifting her lamp for the tempest-tossed.

Nor is the neutral legal process General Reno describes very neutral:

She demands of Elian's family in Miami that they agree, in writing, to hand over Elian if they lose their appeal in court. She does not demand of Elian's father that he agree to keep the boy in this country until the appellate process is exhausted. She appoints psychiatrists to ease Elian's return to his life with father and Big Brother, but she does not appoint psychiatrists to interview Elian himself and decide what would be best for the boy. (Treatment first, diagnosis later.)

There is something about this use of psychiatrists for political ends that brings back the guiding principle of Soviet mental health, namely: Anybody who wants to leave the workers' paradise has to be crazy, and just needs help adjusting. By force, if necessary.

What our attorney general seems to fear most is that Miami's Cubans have become sufficiently Americanized to have read Thoreau on civil disobedience, or Martin Luther King's Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

According to David Ignatius in the Washington Post, "Attorney General Janet Reno and other senior Clinton administration officials have devised a plan to use force to remove Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives unless they agree to cooperate in turning the boy over to authorities.''

Janet Reno says she's heard of no such plan. Well, whom would you believe on the basis of their public records, David Ignatius or Janet Reno?

L-rd, let's hope there are no plans to use tanks again, as in the attack on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. (Wasn't that, too, all perfectly legal? And perfectly mad.)

It has been rightly said that the political tug-of-war over this one child has been a tragedy. But if little Elian is sent back to Cuba, his tragedy may have only begun.

Unless, of course, like Janet Reno, you believe that the difference between the American and Cuban systems is only that between moderate and immoderate politics -- rather than the difference between freedom and slavery, light and darkness, air and suffocation.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate