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Jewish World Review April 17, 2000 / 12 Nissan, 5760

Chris Matthews

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Berkeley politician visits with Elian's father -- THE FOUR-MONTH custody dispute over Elian Gonzalez has exhibited the anti-Castro passions of the Cuban American community centered in Miami.

It has also revealed the strength of passions on the other side.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat who represents Berkeley and Oakland, wants an end to the 40-year U.S. embargo against Castro's Cuba. After a trip to the island nation in 1999, she said that American policy "continues to serve as an impediment to understanding and dialogue" between the two countries.

Lee is also among the many Americans who have called for Elian Gonzalez to be returned to his Cuban father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. She was on a very short list of Americans who were allowed to visit with Elian's father this week. That list was highlighted by such strong opponents of U.S. Cuban policy as Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles; Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., and Joan Brown Campbell of the National Council of Churches.

For Lee and Waters, it was not their first such meeting. The two were part of a delegation that visited Cuba in February, when they were allowed to meet with Juan Miguel Gonzalez. It was a rare event in the months-long standoff over Elian's custody. For much of the time the father was, for all practical purposes, invisible.

Lee holds a master's degree from UC-Berkeley. And despite the East Bay city's reputation for having its own foreign policy — it's been called the People's Republic of Berkeley by its conservative critics — she resists any effort to tie the issue of Elian to the question of U.S.-Cuban relations.

While it has been clear long before this week that Fidel Castro sees the issues as closely intertwined, Lee insists that from her perspective, the international politics and the human concerns are totally separate from Gonzalez's desire to regain his son.

"I talked with him. I'm a trained social worker. He loved his son and he wanted him back, and he was very genuine. He was apparently very upset that he did not have him.

"He's an ordinary man, a working man. It is wrong to politicize this. It's really an issue of parental custody. It's very simple. That has nothing to do with a child being returned to his or her parent.

"No parent needs to be coerced into wanting his or her child with him."

Though there is nothing "simple" about this case, from the perspective of both those who see Castro as a gutsy opponent to imperialism and those who see him as the last Communist tyrant, Lee's last point is irrefutable.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of Hardball. and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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