Political child abuse

Miami's Cuban-American community is playing out the trauma of its exile by exploiting 6-year-old Eli

Published January 13, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

There is nothing new about turning children into political symbols. In the 1950s, the young sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were thrust in front of news cameras in vain hopes of halting their parents' execution. Not long ago I spoke with a friend in his 70s who still feels exploited for being marched as a very young child to New York May Day parades with signs he did not understand.

But the Elian Gonzalez case has in the last several days crossed the line from political exploitation to child abuse. What else can you call it when a 6-year-old who three weeks ago witnessed the drowning deaths of his mother and stepfather now lives a series of happy-face photo-ops -- sucking down ice cream, being glad-handed by ballplayers, waving to reporters on the way to school -- choreographed by a veteran Miami political operative?

What else can you call it when a boy who clung to an inner tube and barely escaped his own death is subpoenaed to testify before a congressional committee, where if a hearing ever takes place he will be expected to effectively renounce his father?

Miami's Cuban-American politicians, and the family members who are fighting Gonzalez's father's request to return the child, seem intent on turning this case into a legal Bay of Pigs: pressing forward a courtroom war which by any reality-test imaginable is impossible to win.

As Janet Reno said today, "The question of who may speak for a 6-year-old child in applying for admission or asylum is a matter of federal immigration law." It has nothing to do with Florida Family Court Judge Rosa Rodriguez, who on Monday awarded "temporary custody" to Gonzalez's great-uncle in Miami, nor with the congressional subpoena issued over the weekend by Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., -- a subpoena Burton admits has no legislative purpose other than to stall Elian's return home to his father.

The Cuban leaders pressing Gonzalez's case are not landing adult volunteers, however doomed, on Fidel Castro's beaches. Instead they seem to be reenacting their own historic loss to Castro upon the stage of a traumatized child's infinitely vulnerable life.

Elian Gonzalez is not the first child to fall victim to an overwrought vision of the American city on a hill: U.S. history is scattered with campaigns to save young people who don't need to be saved, and whose lives are scarred by the disastrous fallout. The playwright and novelist M. Scott Momaday has chronicled the sad fate of Native American children who were enrolled against their will in Anglo boarding schools, forced to cut their hair, abandon their language and renounce their heritage.

As historian Linda Gordon chronicles in her new book "The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction," from the 1850s children of Catholic immigrants were kidnapped from Eastern cities by groups like the Children's Aid Society and transported to Protestant farms in the West. Gordon chronicles how one group of Catholic orphans were "rescued" from Mexican families who intended to adopt them, whose "mode of living, habits and education" the judicial system deemed inadequate. (And if you doubt such vicious bias still exists, ask yourself: Would there be a public outcry to keep Gonzalez in Miami if he had arrived by inner tube from Haiti instead of Havana?)

But for sheer escalating irrationality, it is hard to find a single story that matches this case. By any child psychologist's measure, his father in Cuba, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, presents the picture of stability and protection: holding a stable hotel security job, middle-class by Cuban standards, deeply involved in Elian's life despite divorce from the boy's mother, grandparents nearby.

Indeed the very normalcy and stability of Juan Miguel Gonzalez's life is why Dan Burton's subpoena is especially poisonous. Even when children have been sexually abused or otherwise victimized, securing their testimony against a parent is fraught with the peril of lifelong self-hatred. How much worse for a child who has suffered no abuse at home, who already bears the burden of his mother's death -- a circumstance that often brings its own tangle of survivor guilt? How much worse for a child who is being asked daily to choose between his father's love and Disney World?

And while Cuba remains a lousy place to be an adult dissident, it is a better place than many to be a 6-year-old: a country with 98 percent literacy, universal day care, universal health care and free education through graduate school.

The point is that the drive to keep Gonzalez in the United States amounts to collective insanity. It has gained such momentum only because of the rigid American boycott on Cuba imposed by the Helms-Burton Act -- a Cold War dinosaur of a law which has even been renounced by Pat Buchanan, let alone corporations which are anxious for a piece of Cuba's tourism and pharmaceutical industries.

Were it not for the embargo, Gonzalez's mother could have emigrated legally. Were it not for the embargo, the return of a child to his legal, biological and caring father would be routine. As former Attorney General Ramsey Clark said Wednesday, Elian is an "orphan to the embargo."

But beyond the embargo, Elian is also suffering from the massive distortions of American politics and policies Miami's Cuban exiles have imposed for decades. Once they were enlisted in the Cold War by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Cuban-American leaders carefully nurtured the expectation that with Washington's help they would someday march on Havana. It never happened.

But by the time the Cold War ended, Florida's Cubans had assumed political influence far out of proportion to their population -- in part a function of their prosperity and campaign contributions, in part a function of a residual need for external enemies, in part a function of Florida's influential presidential vote in the Electoral College (remind yourself of that as Al Gore and Bill Bradley run for cover when asked about Elian.)

The result is not freedom in Cuba, but sleaze and influence-peddling in American politics. The Gonzalez case is a perfect example. Dan Burton gets more campaign contributions from Cuban exiles than from his own constituents in Indiana.

Such campaign contributions are not only a GOP problem. Deceased Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, implicated in a variety of illegal anti-Castro enterprises, long funnelled money to compliant Democrats like Connecticut's Sen. Joseph Lieberman. This weekend, Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy signed Dan Burton's letter calling on Janet Reno to reopen Gonzalez's case. It would not be misplaced to ask Kennedy whether his unexpected decision was influenced by his role as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, responsible for securing funds for Democratic House candidates.

Even the very judiciary now wrestling with the case is tainted. Judge Rodriguez, who made that legally dubious intervention in the custody battle, relied in her reelection upon the very same political advisor now orchestrating the campaign by the boy's Miami relatives. Judge Rodriguez is paying the consultant $10,000, and paying another $53,000 to his wife's public relations firm. Legal ethicists differ over whether the judge should have recused herself -- but the role of one political advisor as a nexus between an elected judge and a distraught family suggests just how deeply Cuban exile politics are intertwined with Florida's legal system, and with its media.

Whatever her other weaknesses, former Florida District Attorney Janet Reno knows the take-no-prisoners politics of the Cuban-American community well. That is perhaps one reason she spoke Wednesday with such unmistakable determination to brook no incursions upon her authority.

The sad thing is that this damaging spectacle will go on until it is halted by the federal courts. And for an explanation of such irrational behavior, one must turn to the language not of politics but of psychology. One of the characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder, psychologists tell us, is the persistent, disguised reenactment of an awful, life-changing event.

Cuban-Americans caught up in the Gonzalez case see it as a mirror of their own painful histories and the history of the country from which they are exiled. They seem determined to replay those histories by imposing them on Elian's young life. But while the mythology of fighting against impossible odds may have its political purposes, the reality is victimizing a young boy who more than anything else should be left alone with his father to mourn, to heal, to get on with his life.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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