02 August 2001

"The price of greatness is responsibility."
    - Winston Churchill

Elian Gonzales was recently in the news again, a follow-up piece to show people what has become of him since his return home to Cuba. I commented, “It’s too bad what’s happened. They’ve ruined that child’s life. And ruined the child, too. Look at him. He’ll never be normal again. How could he be, after this?”

The boy was mugging with the sly, precocious, irritating arrogance that false modesty reveals, very much as he used to mug for the reporters who vied with each other for a glimpse of Elian during his stay in Florida. I was struck by how he seemed eager for the camera’s eye, the public attention he was receiving. Here was a child groomed to celebrity. While we don’t see as much of him now, every day he was in the US, we were treated to images of Elian at play, Elian with the loving family, Elian going to school, Elian as the focus of a custody battle in which governments were depicted as archetypal forces of good and evil.

The facts were these:

A little boy was discovered floating off the coast of Florida, the lone survivor of a boating accident. He was claimed by relatives in Miami, who took him to their home and petitioned the courts for legal custody. The boy’s frantic father, on learning of his son’s location, asked that his son be returned to him in Cuba. The Florida relatives resisted efforts to return the boy to his father. Two grandmothers flew to the US in an attempt to convince the Justice Department that their grandson should be returned to his father’s custody. The boy’s father flew to the US to personally escort his son back to Cuba. The relatives again resisted the government’s request to surrender the boy to his father.

Beyond the bare facts was another story:

Elian Gonzales’s life was ruined from the first day he arrived on United States soil. He was never treated as an individual, he was a symbol to us of the ideological and socio-political warfare waged between the US and Cuban governments. There was no reason to keep the boy from his father, who by all accounts, loved Elian. Instead, people all over the country jumped on the disgraceful bandwagon of chest-thumping nationalism, convincing themselves they had the “right” to keep the boy, because his life would be “better” in the US than under Castro’s government in Cuba. The Cuban government demanded Elian’s return, while Cuban politicians and officials made haranguing speeches about the evil opportunism of the godless and unprincipled people in the United States.

The media had a wonderful time retelling Elian’s story, each successive version tilting the truth just a little bit to better illuminate whatever ideology or point for which they held the strongest conviction. Millions of viewers, listeners, and readers joined in the endless, knotted debate.

We decided somewhere along the line we desired a mythological struggle, so we framed the battle for the boy in terms of an heroic quest for freedom, with Fidel Castro as the embodiment of threatening darkness. The problem is, the “hero” was only six years old. He simply could not understand the context of the battle being waged over him. He was told that a life of mind-crushing controls and obscurity awaited him if he was forced to return to his father. Elian thought he was the most important little boy in the whole world, because everyone around him told him he was. What he knew was he got plenty of attention, plenty of toys, and plenty of money.

His plight, a whole year of it, was observed by the rest of the world. In the same year, the United States government drafted petitions demanding that children who were taken to other countries to be returned to the parent still residing in the US. There were men and women who were desperate for news of sons and daughters spirited off to Asian, African, or European nations. These parents grieved over every moment of separation, and they turned to the United States government for intercession and assistance in recovering their missing children.

In most of these cases, the children were either living with the absconding parent, or in the bosom of the extended family. The United States government worked diligently to ensure the safe, swift return of the “kidnapped” child to the grief-stricken parent.

Nobody saw any irony, tragic or otherwise, in the fact that the Gonzales affair was the same, only it was the drowned mother who absconded with the son, spiriting him off to the United States, unbeknownst to the father. The Cuban government had a moral obligation to assist the father in recovering his son, who was for all intents and purposes, kidnapped. Instead of admiring the father’s courage and determination, we excoriated him, and cast aspersions on the Cuban government’s intentions in assisting him.

Every day, we send illegal immigrants back to their countries. Many of the deportees seek political asylum from horrific, oppressive situations, and a few are in peril of their very lives. We don’t make many exceptions — we send these people away. We tell them they must follow the legal processes for emigration from their homelands and for immigration to our country before they will be welcomed. If Elian Gonzales had been a forty-year-old woman, his stay in the US would have been brief, with him likely being deported as an “undesirable.” However, Elian wasn’t undesirable — just the opposite, in fact. He was a cute little boy whose personal tragedy stirred our collective national parenting instinct to protect him. He was our poster-boy for adoption, a “Dondi” for the 1990’s. We were so intent on our own feelings, we lost sight of what we were doing to a man’s family.

And for that, I am ashamed. I hope some day the Gonzales family can find it in their hearts to forgive us.

Excuse me. I need to go hug my kids.


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