From the first days of the sad saga of Elian Gonzalez -- which may yet drag on for a while, despite a judge's ruling Tuesday denying an asylum hearing for the 6-year-old Cuban boy -- I have followed the story with profound ambivalence. My mixed feelings undoubtedly have to do with the fact that I was born in the Soviet Union and lived there until the age of 16.
Sometimes I try to imagine myself in Elian's place. Suppose my mother had tried to spirit my 6-year-old self out of Russia and died in the escape, and I had ended up somewhere in the West with relatives I barely knew. Of course I would have wanted to be back with my father and my grandmother.
But I also know something about growing up under communism. I wasn't much older than Elian when I already knew that if I told anyone about the things my parents said at home -- for instance, that Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, was not really the greatest human being who ever lived (as we were taught at school), or that the Soviet Union was not really a shining beacon for all humankind -- mommy and daddy would go to jail.
I can't say that my childhood was horrible or bleak. Those who deny that communism is evil often point out that people in communist countries still laugh, have fun and enjoy close relationships with friends and family -- which, of course, is true. Simply because my family lived in Moscow, we were materially better off than the vast majority of the Soviet population -- though, by the time we emigrated in 1980, I had done my share of standing in line for food. I have a vivid memory of being nearly trampled in a store when, during a butter shortage, there was a surprise delivery of a batch of butter packs.
But the worst part of it was growing up knowing I was state property. "They" could do anything. When I was 14 or 15, a teacher assured us that a plan was underway to have everyone's occupation assigned by the government, because it was too disorderly to let people choose for themselves and none of us slackers wanted to work in factories anymore. There probably never was any such plan, but it was plausible enough to be scary -- just like the rumor circulating at school that upon graduation, we would be forced to "volunteer" for work on the much-hyped construction of a new railroad in Siberia.
"They" owned you. "They" wanted your allegiance, too. It wasn't just that you couldn't express "incorrect" ideas; you had to parrot "correct" ones and pretend to believe them. (In 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, every employee at every work place had to vote for a resolution supporting the invasion, at the risk of being fired or worse.) I wrote school essays on topics like "Lessons We Can Learn from Lenin" and felt dirty.
In ninth grade, the teacher in charge of our ideological stewardship demanded to know why I, alone among my classmates, had not yet joined the Young Communist League -- such a blot on the reputation of the class! -- and all I could do was mumble that I didn't feel mature enough. I also knew that unless I joined, I would have virtually no chance of getting into college (being Jewish didn't help, either).
My family didn't have to make a daring escape; we were among the Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate legally, in exchange for trade agreements with the United States. But it was still a risky venture; some of those who petitioned to leave were turned down and left in limbo, as virtually unemployable outcasts. Even with exit visa in hand, we were not sure we would actually get out until the moment our Vienna-bound train crossed the Soviet border. There had been cases of people being taken off trains, or planes sitting on the runway, of people being told there had been a mistake and their visa had been revoked. As long as you were in their power, "they" could do anything.
And so, of course, my view of Elian's situation is filtered through the prism of those memories.
Emigres from communist countries tend to believe that unless you've lived under a communist regime, you can't truly understand it. I don't share this view, which seems uncomfortably similar to the leftist dogma that only blacks have a valid perspective on race, and only women can talk about rape or abortion. There are native-born Americans, conservative and liberal, who have been able to understand totalitarianism quite well from the outside.
Still, the fact is that most people who have neither lived nor studied the communist experience really don't get it. Some of them can say, in all sincerity, "Well, when Elian grows up, he can decide if he wants to live in Cuba or in the United States." Maybe they haven't noticed that Cubans who decide they want to live in the U.S. have to brave shark-infested waters in rickety boats.
Admittedly, there has been overwrought rhetoric and hypocrisy on both sides of the debate. Some anti-Castro zealots have made the ludicrous and offensive assertion that sending Elian back to Cuba is tantamount to returning a Jewish child to Germany in the 1930s (surely, the boy is in no danger of being shot or dispatched to a death camp).
Conservatives who decry the horror of handing Elian over to a communist dictator sidestep the fact that Chinese freedom-seekers who escape to America are routinely sent back. Some talk about returning the boy "to the custody of Fidel Castro" as if the father weren't even in the picture.
But the "Send Elian home" crowd makes me queasier. Take the National Council of Churches, which has led the effort to get the boy returned to Cuba and which organized his grandmothers' visit to the U.S. last January. When one of the attorneys for Elian's Miami relatives accused the NCC of collaborating with communists, some commentators acted like it was another outrage by those crazy Cuban exiles. But in fact, the NCC has a long history of cozying up to oppressive left-wing regimes.
In a 1978 publication, it praised China's murderous Cultural Revolution for championing "community interest, anti-elitism, commitment to revolutionary social goals, dignity of manual labor." An NCC delegation that traveled to the Soviet Union in 1984 declared itself very pleased with the status of religion in that country -- at a time when Russian Orthodox worship was barely tolerated and the Baptist faith treated as an outlaw cult.
Now, the NCC praises Cuba's commitment to equality and its social programs like universal health care. (Never mind that quality medical care in Cuba is only for communist party bosses and foreigners bearing dollars. As for ordinary folk, the NCC should talk to a friend of mine whose aunt back in Cuba died of cancer recently; the only way she could get any medicines, painkillers or syringes for injections was from relatives in Miami.) When the NCC does acknowledge the economic misery of the Cuban people, it blames solely the U.S. embargo, not Castro's communism.
Yes, the care of a loving parent should be valued more than material wealth. But the blithe contempt for materialism exhibited by many who advocate sending Elian home often has an irritating undercurrent of snobbery, coming from people who have never had to stand in line for toilet paper for three hours. And far too often, Elian's dilemma has been simplified to a case of high living standards vs. loving family. But is freedom really so unimportant? Doesn't it matter that there are people in Cuban prisons for criticizing the state? Or that the "civic duties" of Cuban schoolchildren include toiling on collective farms?
Writing in the New York Observer, Anne Roiphe dismisses concerns about what awaits Elian in Cuba with the typical arrogance of the limousine liberal. "There is something coarse, vulgar even, about making a child the object of capitalism's seductions," Roiphe sniffs. "If Elian should grow up to be a poet or a writer or an artist or a politician, he will be far better off in Miami, but if he should grow up to be a fisherman or a cook he might be better off in Cuba." The notion that fishermen and cooks are better off in Cuba is rather unbelievable; I would venture to say that American cooks live far better than Cuban engineers. And isn't it a tad elitist to suggest that only poets, artists and politicians need freedom to thrive?
Of course the people who want Elian to stay in the U.S. often won't acknowledge that the issue is truly a wrenching one, that to separate a child from his only living parent is, even in the name of freedom, a drastic measure. But in the end, the blame for such a tragic choice rests with a regime that denies freedom to its people. Curiously, the NCC and other groups so anxious to reunite Elian with his dad are silent about the many exiles, refugees and defectors who have fled but still have children and spouses held hostage by Castro.
Nor is Elian the only Cuban child who, in the years since Castro gained power, has wound up in the U.S. without his parents. In 1960-1962, more than 14,000 children were sent out of Cuba to the United States, on their own; their parents resorted to this desperate step after the Castro regime started closing down Catholic schools and shipping children off to study in the Soviet Union. As Cuban-born journalist Yvonne Conde documents in her 1999 book "Operation Pedro Pan," 70 percent of the children who left in this exodus were separated from their parents for at least a year; a few were never reunited.
When Conde surveyed former Pedro Pan children, many described painful feelings of grief and loss. Nevertheless, 85 percent were glad that their parents had gotten them out of Cuba.
Either way, Elian's story won't have a happy ending. Still, if it were my decision to make, I would let him stay here. Suppose this was America 150 years ago, and a slave woman had drowned while fleeing to freedom, and her little boy had been rescued and taken in by abolitionists. Suppose the master was demanding the boy's return and cynically trotting out the loving father who had been left behind. Would you send that boy back to the plantation?
Many people might think I'm going too far, comparing life in Castro's Cuba to slavery. Well, I remember the feeling of growing up state property in the Soviet Union. And it's a feeling that, despite my sadness about his separation from his father, I can't wish on Elian.