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A Six-Year-Young War

The battle between old foes, the US and Cuba, continues. This time, it’s over the custody of a child.

A Six-Year-Young War
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IT isn’t just a battle for custody, it’s more a political drama, a resurrection of the simmering Cold War rivalry between the US and communist Cuba. And it’s being played over the body of a six-year-old child. On November 25, 1999, which, incidentally, was Thanksgiving Day in the US, Elian Gonzalez was found floating on an inner tube off the Florida coast after the 16-foot motor boat taking him from Cuba sank. Ten passengers, apart from Elian’s mother, died in this tragic attempt to sneak illegally into the US. Now, five months later, the boy is a figure of global attention as Cuban and US authorities wrangle over who should ‘possess’ him.

Soon after his rescue, Elian was handed over to his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez in Miami’s Little Havana under a temporary custody arrangement granted by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS). This branch of Elian’s family is part of Florida’s politically crucial Cuban-exiles community. The family maintains that since Elian’s mother died trying to bring the boy into the US, he deserves a chance to grow up in the US. Other Cuban exiles in Miami endorsed this view, and pledged they would not allow the boy to be returned to Cuba.

But their opponent and old US foe, Cuban president Fidel Castro, obviously thought otherwise. Granma, Cuba’s communist party mouthpiece, predicted a crushing political defeat for Cuban Americans over the protracted custody battle. Comparing the dispute with the aborted attempt by Cuban exiles to invade the Caribbean island in 1961, it said: "They’re looking for a political Bay of Pigs." Amidst the rivalling demonstrations and campaigns in Cuba and the US, Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez (who had divorced Elian’s mother and remarried), flew to the US with his second wife and baby son, intent on taking Elian back. And underlining the fact that this was nothing short of an ideological war, Castro himself was there to see off Elian’s father at Havana.

Then, on April 22, things took a dramatic turn. In a pre-dawn raid, heavily armed federal agents, under orders from attorney general Janet Reno, broke into Lazaro Gonzalez’s Miami house and abducted Elian. "Up until the last, we tried every way we could to encourage Lazaro Gonzalez to voluntarily hand over the child to his father. Unfortunately, the Miami relatives rejected our efforts, leaving us no other option but enforcement action," Reno said later. Despite the massive protests by Cuban exiles over the way Elian was snatched by the agents, a CBS news poll, conducted a day after the raid, found that a majority of Americans-57 per cent-believed federal agents had done what was necessary to enforce the law. President Clinton too, perhaps keen to prove that the US would treat the case purely according to the law, has backed his chief law enforcement official, Reno, to the hilt.

Since then, Elian, his father, stepmother and his half-brother have been removed from Andrews air force base near Washington-where they’d stayed since his arrival from Miami-to the Wye River conference center in Maryland to give them "greater privacy." The family has hired attorney Gregory B. Graig, who defended Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky case, to fight their custody battle. Elian’s "adopted family" too air-dashed to Washington right after the raid and filed a petition seeking asylum for him. The court has barred Elian from leaving the US until its next hearing scheduled for May 11. Another court order forbids the boy from being taken to a location protected by diplomatic immunity.

The battle might have moved to the courts, but the political complexity surrounding the issue is apparent. The case has also served to highlight the voting clout of Cuban exiles in the key state of Florida. Governed by a personal grudge against Castro, they’ve virtually hijacked the US’s Cuba policy which, by all accounts, is bereft of any strategic thinking. Sensing this, some commentators have used Elian’s case to argue for a rethink on the Cuba policy. "One hopes this affair will remind extremists among Miami Cubans that they aren’t living in their own private country, that they may hate Castro more than they love the US Constitution-but that doesn’t apply to the rest of us," wrote New York Times’ foreign affairs commentator Thomas L. Friedman. "One also hopes that...now Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State) could start by relaxing the embargo on Cuba," he added.

While there might be a feeling within the US that its 40-year-old policy of Cuba’s encirclement hasn’t quite worked, it’s the hard-core Republicans, backed by Miami Cubans, who’ve resisted all attempts at reforms. And even if Clinton sees the rationale for a policy change, he can’t do much. For, this is election year and Clinton’s vice president and Democratic presidential nominee, Al Gore, can’t afford such a policy reversal. Gore will find it difficult to ignore the Miami Cubans’ electoral strength, particularly in a state where his Republican presidential rival and Texas governor, George W. Bush, has some influence with Florida’s majority Hispanic community.

Sensing this, Gore has to an extent broken ranks with Clinton on the issue. In his first public comments about the raid, he told National Public Radio that he "would have handled it differently." He also reiterated his stand that a family court should have decided the boy’s future, although he stopped short of directly criticising the move. Gore had earlier come under attack from fellow Democrats last month when he’d backed the idea of giving the boy permanent residency in the US.

Gore’s problem is that Bush is out to cash in on the issue. The Texas governor in a TV appearance has drawn attention to the controversial photograph taken at the time of the raid which shows a federal agent pointing a rifle in Elian’s direction as the boy clutched Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who’d rescued him. "This isn’t the American way," Bush remarked. Bush wants the administration to persuade Elian’s father to defect and raise his family in the US, an offer Gonzalez has rejected. He’s also spurned offers of a million dollars, a house and a job as an incentive to defect and instead insists on returning home.

The Republicans are keen to fuel the political storm the forcible seizure generated. Republican Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Henry J. Hyde-the chief manager of the impeachment trial against Clinton last year-announced his staff would begin a preliminary investigation into the forcible seizure of Elian. "The inquiry will focus on whether the use of such force was necessary or appropriate," he said. The Clinton administration says that natural justice means the father should’ve custody of Elian. Clinton too has left no doubt about his views: "I think the father should be reunited with his son. That’s the law." US law provides the father with the child’s custody in the absence of a mother. And it’s on this single point in the entire 40-year bitter history of US-Cuban relations that both governments agree: in the absence of his mother, Elian should return to his father.

But finally, all the political manoeuvrings seem to have overshadowed the basic question of a child’s life. And whatever the eventual result of this saga, one wonders whether it’ll ever be possible for Elian to lead a normal life again, in Cuba or in the US.

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