A world of their own

The Miami media recognizes and helps perpetuate a separate reality for Cuban exiles.

By Max Castro
Published April 21, 2000 6:23PM (EDT)

"Family Defies Order," read the headline in the Miami Herald last Friday, after the family of Elian Gonzalez ignored Attorney General Janet Reno's deadline to return him to his father. "Jubilo en Miami" (Jubilation in Miami) blared the headline in the same day's El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister publication, a daily that regularly dishes out a version of reality at odds with that of the English edition, and most of the U.S. press.

As I write, Reno is said to be finally preparing for what has come to seem inevitable: the forceful removal of the boy from his Miami relatives' home. The saga may soon be over. But Miami in the days of Elian has been a tragic tale of two cities, and nowhere is the schism more evident than in the pages of the city's two main dailies, despite the fact that both papers are published in the same building and owned by the same company, the Miami Herald Publishing Company, itself owned by Knight-Ridder.

The Herald, with its split personality, at once chronicles, mirrors and perpetuates racial and ethnic divisions that predate the Elian case but have now come to a head. After Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez failed to meet the Justice Department's deadline for turning the child over and the government declined to act, subscribers to the Miami Herald read a sobering tale of defiance of the law, while El Nuevo Herald readers were treated to a description of mass relief and joy over what was construed as a reprieve from deportation. The stark difference in slant reflected a systematic pattern present also in other media. Coverage by Miami's two Spanish-language television stations was relentlessly sympathetic to those who want to keep Elian in the United States.

Beyond their personal and passionate relation to the subject of Cuba, one reason most Miami Cuban-Americans have such strikingly different views from other Americans on Elian and issues like the embargo is that the part of the press that caters to them strives mightily to tell them what they want to hear. Examples are legion and sometimes comical, with recurring reports of Fidel Castro's death at the top of the list.

One Sunday El Nuevo Herald carried a huge headline trumpeting the tale of a Cuban neurosurgeon who had recently treated the Cuban president for a near-fatal condition. Every aspect of the story turned out to be a complete fabrication concocted by a nursing-school dropout masquerading as a doctor who even lied about her name.

Little wonder then that the Elian case has underlined the fact that many Cuban-Americans live in a separate reality when it comes to certain issues. A Herald poll published April 9 showed 83 percent of Cuban-Americans want Elian to stay with his South Florida relatives. That contrasts with the majority opinion of Americans, and even more sharply with the attitudes of their African-American and Anglo neighbors in Miami, who favor the return of Elian to his father in Cuba by 92 percent and 76 percent respectively.

Many Cuban-Americans believe that fellow Americans disagree with them because the national media has not told their story. But nowhere in the United States has the media cast a more critical eye on the Cuban government of Fidel Castro nor portrayed Cuban-Americans in a more sympathetic light than in Miami, and yet here other Americans are even less attuned to the Cuban exile view of the world.

For a Cuban-American like myself, whose views are distinctly in the minority in this exceedingly emotional case, the Elian tragedy and our community's isolation is excruciatingly sad and profoundly disturbing. I live in the heart of the old Cuban community in Miami, not in a new suburb like most of my fellow Cuban-American professionals. The house where Elian Gonzalez is staying is five minutes away by car. Yet I feel a million miles distant.

Am I really part of a tiny minority -- only 9 percent -- of Miami Cubans who, according to the Herald poll, think parents are more important than politics? I tell myself that most of the 8 percent who didn't answer or didn't have an opinion were too afraid to break rank; they are really on my side. I tell myself the data for the Cuban sub-sample has a margin of error of 5.6 percent. I tell myself the pollster who did the survey recently predicted a tax initiative would pass by a slim margin, and the next day it was defeated in a landslide.

But put it all together and at best it means that perhaps I am outnumbered in my own community by only 5-to-1 instead of 11-to-1. For some perspective, I talk to a former prominent Washington official living in Miami, a white liberal who was part of a minuscule minority growing up in Mississippi during the bad old days. He knows exactly how I feel. It's small consolation.

One of the most disturbing elements of the Elian saga is the irrational, mystical, quasi-religious aura that has emerged around the figure of the child, a virtual Elian cult. The cult combines elements of a religious mania and a Manichean political crusade. It's a toxic and potentially dangerous combination. Love of the angelic Elian, who has been compared to Moses and Jesus and in whose Miami residence an apparition of the Virgin Mary has been reported, is the counterpart of intense hatred for the devil Castro. The angel must not be returned to Satan in hell, also known as Cuba.

Resorting to the realm of the mystical and the irrational is a convenient psychological move when what is desired is not achievable in the worlds of law, logic or reason. There is an element here of manipulation of symbols for political ends, but the effect is no less real. What might people who have internalized the cult of Elian do in case of a confrontation with authorities?

The question becomes more pertinent each day as the legal options available to the Miami relatives to prevent the child to be returned to his father evaporate. Now President Clinton has for the first time said forcefully that Elian must be returned to his father. Justice Department sources also say that Attorney General Reno is making final plans to remove the boy, if a last-ditch round of talks fails to bring a negotiated solution, as all the talks up to this point have failed to do.

How did it come to this, when little over a week ago Elian's return seemed imminent? Last Thursday a state judge threw out the relatives' lawsuit seeking temporary custody, foreclosing what had been the Miami relatives' best legal hope -- to turn the custody issue into a political trail of the Cuban government before an elected Miami judge.

In dismissing the suit and even denying a hearing, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey wrote, "There is no purpose in prolonging the anxiety of this family and other people who feel so strongly about this case when the law is so clear and when the inevitable result would be ever more crushingly disappointing."

Subsequently, however, federal judges have ordered that Elian stay in the United States and will hear arguments as to whether the 6-year-old is entitled to an asylum hearing as the Miami relatives contend. The Justice Department contends only Juan Miguel Gonzalez can make legal decisions for Elian, including petitioning for asylum. The elder Gonzalez has said he does not want asylum for his son, who he wishes to return to Cuba.

Meanwhile the relatives and their political supporters have played a game of seduction and destruction with the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Seduction, getting him to defect, was by far the preferred outcome for the hard-line exile political forces at the very center of the campaign -- including the Cuban American National Foundation and three Cuban-American members of Congress. That is the only ending that guarantees them a clear-cut political victory over Castro. According to Juan Miguel himself, he has been offered $2 million to defect.

I am convinced that if Juan Miguel had stepped off the plane and asked for political asylum, he would have been hailed as a hero and a perfect father and would now be reunited with his son. Instead, a relentless 11th-hour character assassination got under way, aimed at portraying him as an unfit father. No credible evidence has been presented to support the charge. Character assassination is just one line of attack.

"Cuba is a prison, and if you desire to return to a prison, you don't get to take your child with you, no matter how good father you are," says George Fowler, a New Orleans lawyer associated with the Cuban American National Foundation.

Such reasoning has chilling implications for every parent in Cuba, not to mention countries like China, Vietnam, North Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other states with questionable human rights records. The federal government quickly filed a brief arguing the argument is deeply flawed. Yet it represents the essence of the bargain offered Juan Miguel Gonzalez: Defect or lose your child.

Now Gonzalez has appealed to the American people, asking them to write to Clinton and Reno on his behalf. "Don't let them continue to abuse my son," he implored Thursday. "I was promised that I was going to be reunited with my son. Two weeks have gone by and it hasn't happened. I have always understood, I have always thought, that the United States is a country which abided by its laws." Gonzales was scheduled to meet with Reno again Friday.

While the majority of Americans has always been on his side, Gonzales' words are unlikely to move his implacable enemies in the exile community hellbent on preventing the return of Elian to Cuba. But perhaps they will strengthen the will of Clinton and Reno to enforce the law and put an end to one father's suffering.

As I write this a mile from the scene of what is beginning to look like a hostage situation, I am as weary and apprehensive as nearly all Miamians -- and a little sadder than most of my fellow residents, as I watch the madness that has gripped a substantial sector of my community.

In the absence of any leadership willing to risk imparting a dose of reality to the community, I join most Americans in wanting to see father and son reunited, and most Miamians in dreading the difficult and uncertain days that surely lie ahead. Upholding the law in the face of intransigence sometimes requires a forceful assertion of authority. This is one of those times. It appears that Reno has finally understood this and is preparing to reunite father and son in the face of opposition by the Miami relatives and their diehard supporters.

Max Castro

Max J. Castro, Ph.D., a sociologist, is currently senior research associate in the Dante B. Fascell North-South Center at the University of Miami and a regular op/ed columnist for the Miami Herald.

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