Elian fever revitalizes Cuba

by Michael I. Niman
special to The News
originally published by The Buffalo News, Sunday April 30th, 2000)

While Elian fatigue is setting in throughout the US, with a growing majority of Americans just wanting to see the boy go home with his Dad, Elian mania is gripping Cuba stronger than ever. If and when little Elian goes home, he’ll return to a different Cuba — a Cuba newly re-energized with patriotic fervor, thanks to the little boy’s plight.

And it’s going to be a rough trip back for little Elian. First there’s there’s the Cuban Americans, known as "gusanos," or "worms," back in Cuba. They’ve maintained a loud vigil outside the Miami house where Elian was staying for months in an effort to keep the boy, who many of them now believe is some sort of messenger of god, from returning home to Cuba.

The Cuban media refers to them as "Mafioso" and "kidnappers," and Miami as the "lawless frontier." The recent rash of tire fires after federal agents removed Elian from the Miami house doesn’t help dispel that myth.

But the truly disorienting experience will be upon the boy’s eventual return to Cuba, assuming the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta decides to allow it when his case for asylum is heard May 11. Forget the fact that he’s only six, that he witnessed and is in denial about his mother’s death, that instead of receiving counseling he was whisked off to Disney World by strangers claiming to be his true family, that he’s been continuously showered with gifts (3 nifty new bikes at last count), and that in true postmodern fashion, he’s been turned into a human billboard, sporting t-shirts promoting products and ideologies before the paparazzi.

Forget all that. Cuba will be stranger — more difficult for the boy to comprehend.

When he returns, Cuba will look basically as it did when he left in November. Actually it’ll look much as it did in 1959. Hardly anything on the Cuban landscape ever changes — it just decays. People are driving the same cars their grandparents drove 40, 50 and 60 years ago. Few houses have seen paint in the final half of the 20th century. Rum is cheap. So is ice cream. Fidel is firmly in charge.

But the subtle changes will be impossible for little Elian to miss. Home looks the same, except everyone, it seems, is sporting a new t-shirt emblazoned with Elian’s image. Billboards everywhere display countless likenesses of the little boy. In shops and markets his picture is right up there with Che and Fidel. His photo is taped to windows and living room walls of homes all over the country. Half the news on television on any given day is about him. His story dominates the newspapers with special editions devoted solely to him. Thousands march somewhere in Cuba on a daily basis to demand his return. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out for one march alone on Havana’s waterfront. To date, Fidel has given six speeches about the boy’s plight with the longest one lasting over six hours.

How can the poor child not pop a fuse. It’s the Truman Show, Candid Camera and Cops. Yes Elian, Everyone is watching your every move. People on both shores of the Florida Straights believe the future of Cuba, and now Miami, rests on Elian, Gusano God, Child of the Revolution.

When I was in Cuba in late March, a new book came out — a rare occurrence in Cuba despite near universal literacy. The book, which one day appeared for sale on street corners throughout Havana, is the story of "Operation Peter Pan," the mass removal of as many as 14,000 children from Cuba to the US immediately following the revolution. At the time, parents, fearing the worse after the revolution, sent their children off. Many never saw them again. The reason for revisiting this story escapes no one. The book release was accompanied by days of media hoopla. It dominated newspapers and television broadcasts, where state media pundits praised the book, describing it as "the story of 14,000 Elianes." Sales seemed brisk, as crowds, in true Orwellian fashion, snapped them up.

At about the same time, I noticed a massive new construction project on Havana’s Malecon, adjacent to the former US embassy, now the "US interests building." New construction, especially on this scale, is rare in Havana. More curious was the fact that the new structure was displacing the anti-US murals that, after gracing the spot for years, had become a tourist attraction. I joked that they must be building a giant Elian head to stare down the old embassy.

After three weeks of fervent around the clock construction work, the project was completed in time for 10,000 people to gather under it’s arches and, of course, demand little Elian’s return. The structure, an open air monument, bears the weighty name, "The Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Open Tribunal." The centerpiece of the new structure is a likeness of the nationalist hero, poet and martyr, Jose Marti, guarding a little boy who, of course, resembles Elian Gonzalez.

Cuba has not seen a popular mobilization of this scale since the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Missile Crisis. By not promptly returning the boy to his father in Cuba, the US government inadvertently gave a new lease on life to a Cuban government whose popularity was waning as class divisions deepened in Cuba’s new mixed economy.

Few Cubans remember the days before the revolution. They’ve never known starvation or homelessness. For most Cubans, it’s not their revolution but that of their parents and grandparents. They see the affluence that tourists display. They see their wealthy neighbor’s new Adidas sneakers. They’re restless and looking for change. Then came the Elian saga just in time to reunite the nation, to rekindle the good fight against imperialismo. When it comes to Cuba, the US has a 41 year track record for blunders.

Cubans see the Elian affair as American condemnation of their entire society. There are no credible allegations that Elian’s Dad, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, is an unfit father — other than the fact that he is Cuban and lives in Cuba. That fact alone has transformed a rather clear cut parental abduction turned custody battle, into an international incident.

Elian, according to the Miami Cubans eager to hold on to him, "has tasted freedom." Hence, it would be inhumane to send him back to his family in "Castro’s Cuba." Cuba is, after all, an all encompassing police state — this is true. But it is also true that growing up as a Hispanic American, Elian will be much more likely to be shot or killed by a police officer in the US than he would be growing up in Cuba. The Cuban police are annoying with their invasive questions and endless checkpoints, but these days they seldom ever fire a shot or assault anyone. Likewise, even though Cuba is a police state, statistics show that Elian would be far more likely to wind up jailed in the US, than he would be in Cuba. In fact, he’d be more likely to be tortured by the police in the land of freedom, than he would in today’s Cuba.

Staying in the US would also increase Elian’s chances of developing a drug addiction, winding up homeless, being unable to afford medical care or a quality education, or getting murdered. But in the US, he’d also be far more likely to own two ply scented bathroom tissue, a microwave oven, a Nintendo, a digital television, an air conditioned home, an in-ground pool or a private airplane. He’d also be more likely to require medication for depression or anxiety. Yes, young Elian has tasted freedom.

The Miami crowd has done little to dispel the Cuban propaganda labeling them as lawless thugs and kidnappers. The mayor’s assurance that the local police would not help execute a court ordered return of the boy to his father helped reinforce the "lawless" myth. Or maybe it’s not a myth. Cuban-American threats to "burn Miami" if the boy is reunited with his father don’t help dispel the "thug" or "mafia" myth. Likewise, the Justice Department’s need to negociate terms with the Miami relatives for Elian’s return doesn’t help dispel the "kidnapper" myth.

To many outside the Cuban-American exile community, their actions seem extreme and out of hand. True, they’re used to getting their way. But their current passion stems from historical experiences most Americans can’t relate to. Cuba truly was a nasty place when they or their parents left in 1959 through 1962. The kind grand fatherly Castro most Americans saw on television hosting the Pope is a far cry from the younger angrier Castro who instituted capital punishment for political crimes. This is the Castro that is kept alive in the Miami psyche.

Much of the Cuba problem comes down to a time warp. The Miami Cubans, for their part, have spent the last four decades painfully living in 1962. Cuba has evolved independent of them, breaking free of both US and Soviet domination.

And for its part, Cuba seems to have moved back into the 1950s, with tail fins once again dominating the highways. The embargo, while hurting Cuba in many ways, has enabled the Cuban economy to evolve relatively free of debt and free of IMF and World Bank domination. Hence, Cuba was able to escape the painful period of structural readjustment that forced many other countries in the southern hemisphere to gut healthcare, education and other social programs in the 1980 and 90s.

The debate over whether life is better in Cuba or in the US, if both the US and Cuban media would allow us to have it, could be quite enlightening for all involved. In Cuba, Elian is a rich kid. His Dad is part of a growing dollar based economy — earning his pay in US dollars instead of Cuban Pesos. He has his own bedroom complete with a pet parrot. His public school is full of happy playful children. He’s the kind of Cuban we seldom see in the American media. For the Gonzalez family, life, while not necessarily idyllic, is comfortable. Oddly enough, they seem to have achieved a basic form of the American dream.

In Miami, Elian shared a bedroom with three cousins in a community that can only be described as violent and crime-ridden when compared Cardenas, Elian’s hometown in Cuba. If the argument is to come down to quality of life, Americans need to rethink if we really want to go there.

Through Elian’s story, Americans are getting glimpses of a Cuba we have seldom seen on this last front of the cold war. This Cuba is one of happy school children and healthy families. It’s Mayberry, except the sheriff has a beard. Suddenly Cuba has become complex — maybe even normal. And suddenly the US embargo against Cuba, an embargo that has allowed Asian and European corporate interests to gain a dominant foothold in this emerging market of 11 million people 90 miles off of the US coast, makes no sense at all.

This might be the ultimate legacy of the Elian story — the political marginalization of the Miami anti-Cuba lobby and the eventual normalization of relations between the US and Cuba — so that such ridiculousness will never again repeat itself.



Michael I. Niman, Ph.D., author of "People of the Rainbow; A Nomadic Utopia," is an adjunct assistant professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo. He recently returned from a research trip to Cuba.