How little boy riles Castro

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In Cuba, he has never tasted chocolate. When he turns seven, his milk ration would be discontinued. He would face a life of economic hardship and political uncertainty.

And so, in search of freedom, his mother and stepfather packed him with other refugees from Fidel Castro's communist domain into a little aluminum motorboat and set out for Florida.

The boat capsized, the mother and stepfather and other passengers drowned. Elian Gonzales, aged six, drifted for two days on an inner tube - dazed, frightened, alone - in the open sea before being picked up by American rescuers, then turned over to Cuban-American relatives.

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A happy ending and a merry Christmas, right?

Well not exactly, because Elian has become a highly politicized pawn in Mr. Castro's bitter propaganda war with the United States. Thousands of Cubans, under the direction of their block captains and party officials, have been demonstrating in Havana's streets, demanding Elian's return. The boy's natural father says he wants the boy back and has larded his statements with anti-American rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the boy's Cuban-American relatives in Florida, supported by the sizeable Cuban-American community, want him granted political asylum to stay with them and enjoy a life of freedom. His father may be in Cuba, they reason, but didn't his mother give her life so that her son could live in America?

The struggle is complicated by the issue of parental rights. The father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, says he had joint custody of the child. US immigration officials are investigating just what his rights were.

For reasonable men, there would be a third option besides US government agencies simply deciding whether Elian should stay or go back to Cuba. It would be to bring the father, his second wife, and his current family, to the US. Here, free from Cuban government coercion, and without the threat of his current family being held hostage in Cuba, he could meet with Elian and decide what would be best for the boy. Some think Mr. Gonzales would himself want to remain in America.

But that, of course, is improbable. Mr. Castro is unlikely to permit Elian's father to come to America. He's even less likely to permit his family to accompany him.

Thus the real villain in all this is Castro, who created the miserable society from which Elian's mother was fleeing, who has denied freedom of speech to his subjects, and who forbids them to depart their island prison.

In a September commentary on Castro's character, London's Financial Times found him showing signs of "distinctly obsessive behavior." A random dope test on him, suggested the respected newspaper, might show, in addition to the "known substances of durability, stubbornness and veracity, strong traces of performance-enhancing paranoia."

For the fading Marxist egomaniac, 1999 has done little to enhance his international reputation. That may be why he has elevated the tragedy of a six-year-old boy to an international dispute with the US.

The year began badly for Cuba when the United Nations Human Rights Commission, upon a Czech resolution, agreed to monitor human rights abuses in Cuba, and establish a structure to do this.

Then a July meeting of Latin American and European heads of state in Rio de Janeiro gave Castro short shrift when he attacked European states for their lack of support for Yugoslavia in its confrontation with Kosovo and NATO.

In August, Castro exploded over the treatment of Cuban athletes at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada. Four of them were disqualified for drug use, their gold medals were withdrawn, and Cuba finished second to the US. In a paroxysm of rage against the US, Castro denounced Canada as the "second enemy to the north." He was even further agitated by the defection of eight or nine of his athletes.

Then Castro abruptly withdrew the Cuban boxing squad from the world amateur boxing championships in Houston because he disagreed with several decisions by the referees.

Finally, at the Ibero-American summit in Havana in November, Castro took it on the nose again when Cuba's human rights record got more attention than the conference's official topic: globalization. A few countries boycotted the summit. Others made a point of seeking out Cuban dissidents and supporting them.

Too bad that six-year-old Elian Gonzalez should have to suffer because Mr. Castro is having a bad-hair year.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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