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Jewish World Review April 11, 2000 / 6 Nissan, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Ashamed of my government -- I'VE NEVER BEFORE been ashamed of my government, even when I've disagreed with its leaders or opposed its policies. But the specter of U.S. Marshals whisking away a 6-year-old boy so that he can be sent to live in a virtual prison fills me with shame. Unless Attorney General Janet Reno changes her mind, that is exactly what will happen to Elian Gonzalez in the next few days. That Cuba is a prison is beyond dispute, which is why thousands of Cubans have risked -- and lost -- their lives escaping the island since Fidel Castro seized power 40 years ago.

Why is the U.S. government directing all its power to condemn this small boy to a life without freedom when he has already suffered so much? Reno's explanation is that she is simply trying to reunite the boy with his father -- a man who divorced the boy's mother in 1991, several years before Elian was even born, and never lived with the boy. But is this the full story?

By now, much of Elian's tale is all too familiar to most Americans. Just before Thanksgiving, two Florida fishermen found Elian floating in an inner tube along the Florida coast, his mother and all but two other companions drowned at sea on their harrowing escape from communist Cuba. The Immigration and Naturalization Service then turned over Elian to the custody of his great-uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who lives in Miami, while the service determined the boy's status. The next day, a man identifying himself as Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, demanded that his son be returned to Cuba. At the same time, the family with whom Elian was now staying began application for U.S. asylum for Elian.

On Jan. 5, the commissioner of the INS notified the father that he would be returned to Cuba, and rejected the asylum request filed on Elian's behalf, decisions that were upheld by Attorney General Janet Reno. Despite a series of legal skirmishes in and out of court, nothing has changed in the government's position in months.

What's missing in this account, however, is any effort by Reno or anyone else in the government to interview Elian himself or any member of the family with whom the boy has been living since November. As Lazaro Gonzalez pointed out recently in a letter to the attorney general, Reno has taken time off from her very busy schedule to meet with Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a foreign citizen and his lawyer, and with Elian's grandmothers, also foreign citizens. "Notwithstanding the time you have taken to meet with the Cuban members of the family, you have steadfastly refused to meet with any members of our American family and our counsel," he wrote. Why is it that our highest government officials are willing to make themselves available to Cubans, but obstinately balk at meeting with American citizens over the same issue?

Perhaps even more peculiar, the U.S. State Department has asked the Secret Service to provide a security detail to protect the home of Cuban diplomats, where Juan Miguel Gonzalez is currently staying in Bethesda, Md., while he awaits transfer of his son. Normally, the Secret Service provides security only to diplomatic missions with whom the United States has reciprocal relations, for protection of our missions abroad. The United States has no such agreement with Cuba, with whom we don't even maintain diplomatic relations. In order to justify providing such protection, the State Department had to declare the Cuban's home a "temporary mission," according to Jim Mackin, the public affairs spokesman for the Secret Service with whom I spoke.

But from exactly what or whom are the Secret Service protecting Gonzalez?

Some members of Congress have suggested that Gonzalez's lawyer, Greg Craig -- who just happens to be President Clinton's personal lawyer, as well -- gave Castro assurances that Gonzalez would not defect while in the United States, and the Secret Service is there to make sure he doesn't. Can this allegation be true? Who knows. What is known is that uniformed Secret Service agents have prevented Juan Miguel Gonzalez's American uncle from approaching the home to speak with him about Elian.

When officials of the U.S. government decide their first duty is deference to the wishes and demands of Cuban officials, while ignoring the rights of American citizens to petition their own government, they bring shame on the country they are sworn to serve.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate