No good can come of this

Myths and harsh realities in the political sludge match over Elian Gonzalez.

By Bruce Shapiro
Published April 8, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

With Juan Miguel Gonzalez now in Washington, the awful spectacle around his shipwrecked son Elian is moving, at last, toward closure. His Miami relatives feel the legal sand beneath their feet shifting further by the hour. The fantasy of a family court hearing is fading, as is the fantasy of uncle Lazaro Gonzalez's custody of the boy, while the Justice Department draws up its plan to return Elian to his father.

This brief moment between Juan Miguel's arrival and the revocation of custody grants some time -- time to consider some of the myths that still permeate media coverage of Elian's saga.

Myth No. 1. This is a fight over "the best interests of the child." I put that question to pioneering child psychiatrist Dr. Albert Solnit. He is founder of the Yale University Child Study Center and architect, along with Anna Freud and Joseph Goldstein, of child-protection standards that shaped laws in many states over the last two generations.

However you look at it, says Solnit, no legal or psychological "best interest" standards are involved here. The best interests of the child, says Solnit, "refers to continuity of affectionate, protective care." That means care over a lifetime, not a few months. There are times, Solnit agrees, when a child's bonds with a foster family outweigh those of his biological parents; but for a 6-year-old, Solnit says, four months in a foster-family's care "is no contest. Especially since by all reports this boy's father was as much if not more involved with his care than his mother."

The role cast for Elian by Miami's Cuban leadership reminds Solnit of the exploitation of children in particularly contentious divorces. "We see this all the time in divorcing parents who use the child as a way to keep fighting. The parents stay tied to one anther through agression -- and the child is just a medium to do this, gets treated like chattel.

But what about the argument advanced by Miami's Cubans, that returning to Cuba is by definition against Elian's best interests? "Look," says Solnit. "I wouldn't like to live in Cuba. But for a young child, the parent is the country."

Myth No. 2. Elian's case belongs in family court. That's the position articulated by Lazaro Gonzalez's family, by Florida's politicos -- and recently by Vice President Al Gore, who in his desperate desire to defeat George W. Bush in Florida infuriated his own party by endorsing the Elian residency bill.

In fact, nothing could be further damaging to Elian than months of dragged-out, overwrought custody hearings. Historian Linda Gordon points out that claims like those made by Elian's Miami relatives -- offering a culturally superior upbringing "in the best interests of the child" -- are common through history. The same argument was used by white Australians who snatched children from their aboriginal parents, on behalf of Inuit children forcibly removed from their families in Canada, as well as Sephardic Jewish children stolen and given to Ashkenazic Jewish families in Israel. As Gordon puts it, all such cultural custody fights are "saturated with politics" and profoundly traumatic for the children involved.

Indeed, federal Judge K. Michael Moore warned weeks ago that Lazaro Gonzalez's lawyers might "bring about unintended harm" with their unsuccessful lawsuit seeking political asylum for the boy. Moore said that harm might grow with "each passing day" Elian is separated from his father.

Myth No. 3: If the case went to family court, Elian's Miami relatives would win. On this one, Attorney General Janet Reno should propose a deal: Let the case go to family court, provided only that Lazaro Gonzalez agrees to a change of venue from Florida to some state where the family judges aren't elected by Cuban contributions and consultants. Reno could make that bet with a clean conscience, because the Lazaro Gonzalez household would give any reasonable judge not on the Miami Cuban payroll pause. Lazaro himself has two DUI convictions. Elian's cousins have robbery convictions. Daughter Marisleysis, touted as Elian's "surrogate mother," is only 22.

And the Miami Cuban leaders who have insinuated themselves into the Gonzalez household and financed Lazaro's legal team make the picture even worse, from a child-custody standpoint. Jorge Mas Santos, head of the Cuban American National Foundation and a key player in the case, was recently identified as the focus of a grand jury investigation involving $58 million in Miami-Dade County paving contracts for work never performed, according to the Miami Herald. These are the kinds of mobbed-up associations any family judge would have to question.

Myth No. 4: The vitriol of Miami's Cuban-American leaders stems from their passionate feelings about Elian. In fact, there are so many political agendas at work that even veteran Miami politics-watchers need a scorecard to keep track. Gonzalez family lawyer Jose Garcia Pedrosa ran a bitter election campaign against then-state's attorney Janet Reno in the mid-'80s. He outspent Reno by a considerable margin and still lost. Could there be just a hint of vendetta in this new fight? Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who wrote to Reno urging the case be turned over the family court and was a key voice urging Gore to adopt the same view, is married to a Cuban-American business executive who herself arrived in Miami separated from her parents in Operation Pedro Pan. And on and on.

Myth No. 5: Miami's Cuban leaders represent the democratic alternative to Fidel Castro. If anything is apparent by now, it's that Miami's mainstream Cuban leadership has little use for the machinery of democracy if it gets in the way of its war with Castro. If federal courts rule that Elian must go home, Miami's local government has emphatically said it will refuse to cooperate. When the Miami Herald a few years ago ran articles charging Cuban-American leaders with corruption, the paper received bomb threats.

Historically, the only free speech Miami's Cuban leaders care about is the speech they can buy. Between 1979 and 1997, the Cuban American National Foundation and its leaders funneled more than $3 million into congressional and presidential campaigns, creating, as the Center for Public Integrity has said, "an influence machine that, dollar for dollar, is arguably the most effective lobbying force in Washington."

Let's face facts: Guided from the start by such profound distortions and myths, Elian's saga has degenerated to the point where there can be no good outcome.

There's no good outcome for Miami's Cuban-Americans, either. Those community leaders who appointed themselves handlers for Lazaro Gonzalez may have hoped to increase their influence and attain a symbolic victory over Castro. Instead, they have convinced the rest of the United States that they are narrow-minded fanatics, and have so diminished their political influence that even the Republicans have turned against them. The bill to give Elian Gonzalez permanent residency cannot get out of committee in a GOP Congress, surely the greatest failure of all time for the massively well-heeled Cuba lobby. The Elian story has done more to erode public support for the Helms-Burton Cuba embargo than all the visits to Havana by liberal churches and lawyers in the past 20 years.

There is certainly no good outcome for Gore, who, just a week after positioning himself as a born-again reformer, managed to convince most of the American public that he is an inveterate panderer. He may well have even hurt his chances of winning Florida's 25 electoral votes, since many Floridians resent the special treatment granted Little Havana.

Most of all, there is no good outcome for Elian. He has already lost his mother and spent four months in legal and emotional limbo, paraded before television cameras. His departure from his Miami relatives will certainly not be easy, and he will carry new scars to his reunion with his father. His delusional Miami foster family seems at this writing to be nurturing one final fantasy, that Juan Gonzalez will make a sudden decision to remain in the United States. Don't hold your breath.

The time for fantasies -- for prophetic visions of the Virgin and dolphins -- is over, and the sooner Elian is on a plane to Havana, the better. When he is gone, there will be only one question worth asking: Who are the politicians -- from Little Havana to Washington -- who were so willing to sacrifice a child?

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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