Contemplating Elian's future

I spent the weekend on the idyllic campus of Principia College on a bluff above the Mississippi River. The dogwoods were out. The sky was blue. The air was like liquid velvet. The sun was warm and beguiling, beckoning one to lazy, outdoors rambling.

But inside, 135 hand-picked student delegates from colleges all over the country eschewed the glorious weather and huddled in serious discussion about national and international topics that made up the agenda of the college's annual public-affairs conference. Their analyses were serious. Their questions were provocative. Would that the debate between our presidential candidates turns out to be so meaningful and thoughtful.

One of the speakers was Chai Ling, a principal behind the Tiananmen student protest of 1989. Her role marked her for execution by the Chinese Communist regime. Instead, she escaped, nailed into a wooden crate, and smuggled out of China in the hold of a cargo ship. Since then, she has taken masters' degrees at Princeton and Harvard, now runs her own Internet start-up company in Cambridge, Mass., and heads an organization campaigning for political change in China.

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to Elian, the little Cuban boy who is caught like a political shuttlecock between the Cuban and US governments. He too was smuggled out of a homeland in the hands of an oppressive regime. He too was brought to a free land, his mother drowning in the process. But if Elian goes back to Cuba, so long as Fidel Castro remains in power there will be no Princeton or Harvard, no freedom to one day launch his own company, and certainly, no freedom to call for political change in Cuba. Instead, he will be followed by his Cumulative Scholastic Record, Chapter 11 of which will assess his "political, ideological, and moral" performance. It may chronicle that under the law he is the son of a mother guilty of "illegal exit." He himself may be guilty of "enemy propaganda" under Law 88 of 1999.

The debate over Elian is cast within the framework of choice between freedom or family; between life in a free society or life with his father. But the choice is really between freedom or Castroism. For the father is a tool, willing or unwilling, of the regime in Havana. Surely nobody can doubt that if Elian returns to Cuba, after the international figure he has become, it will be Castro who determines his lifestyle and his future, a scenario in which the father is simply a puppet.

When Elian was plucked from the sea, did the father follow a father's natural impulse and speed to Elian's hospital bedside? No, because Fidel Castro would not let him. When Castro, after negotiation with President Clinton's personal lawyer, Gregory Craig, permitted the father to come to the US, the scenario was Castro-orchestrated. The father emerged from a private plane, clutching his new baby for the cameras. As the Weekly Standard observed, his suit was new, his new shirt two sizes too big, and the soles of his new shoes were unmarred by any contact with pavement. The typewritten arrival statement he stumbled through, before being whisked off to the care of Cuban diplomats and security officers, was clearly not his own.

Of course, there's been play-acting and ineptness too on the side of Elian's family and supporters in the Cuban-American community. Goodness knows there has been stumbling and bumbling on the part of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, not noted for its efficiency and sensitivity. Meanwhile, after initially agreeing to settle the matter in family court, the Justice Department, under what pressure from the White House we can only conjecture, seems anxious to send Elian home, and arrange the departure without that traumatic spectacle being chronicled by the world's media.

As this column is written, Elian's future hangs in the balance. That should not deter us from clear-eyed perception of what life with father may mean.

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

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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