The case of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy whose mother drowned trying to get herself and her son to America, illustrated both the sanctimoniousness of the American Left in dismissing concerns about political and economic freedom under socialist governments, and the ineptitude of the American Right in articulating them. Since the attitude of the public seemed mostly to mirror the Left’s derision, I wrote this to remind people how often perceptions about oppression depend on your degree of empathy with the oppressors or the oppressed. It was submitted to both the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle. It was not published.
A note on the text: this was written almost two years before September 11th, 2001. At that time the Taliban was dreadful, but not as famously so as they later became, so the reference to them was more subtle than it now seems.
12 January 2000
The INS has decided that Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his father in Cuba. The Cuban nationalists in Miami — and American conservatives (and those pandering to conservatives for electoral reasons) — are incensed, arguing against ‘family values’, against traditional notions of parental rights, and seemingly against common sense, that the oppressive nature of the Cuban government should outweigh all other considerations, even the bond between a father and a son.
They are acting outrageously, you say. They are playing politics with a boy’s life. The nature of the Cuban government is beside the point. The INS is obviously right, and the conservatives are just too stupid and full of hatred for Castro to see it. It’s clear to the rest of us. Why are they so blind?
But if you are certain of the rightness of this decision, dismayed that there could be any question of its moral truth, and outraged at the suggestion that a life in Cuba with a father could possibly be worse than life in America without, ask yourself whether you would feel the same had Elian been a young girl spirited away by her mother from the fundamentalist Islamic fanaticism of the Taliban, or an American boy taken by his mother from the vitriol of a white-supremacist militia enclave. Were Elian’s future with his father to be the oppression of the veil in Afghanistan or a childhood of indoctrination into Aryan nationalist hatred in Montana, would you be so sanguine? Would the “best interest of the child” so clearly lie with a father enmeshed within — and seemingly loyal to — such a society?
If you think not — or if you even doubt — you have conceded the Cuban nationalists and American conservatives their first point: there are circumstances which supersede even parental ties; and a future of oppression in a totalitarian society is a valid counter to the automatic assumption of parental authority. If you still do not concede their second point — that the oppression of Socialist Cuba rises to such a level — then you disagree only with their evaluation of the Cuban government and society.
And on such an evaluation there may be reasonable disagreement. Just as the oppression of women under Islamic (or Christian) fundamentalism is self-evidently evil in the eyes of a feminist, just as Aryan nationalism is self-evidently evil to a person of color, so Socialism — with its denial of the individual for the benefit of the society — is self-evidently evil to a civil libertarian. To the extent that the Cuban government continues to preach and practice the extremes of Socialism, there is a reasonable argument to be made that forcible repatriation to Cuba is an immoral and unconscionable act. To the extent that the Cuban government has retreated from such extremes, there is a reasonable argument to be made that Cuban society is not the hell that the Cuban nationalists would have you believe.
In the end, it may be that the INS is right to reunite Elian Gonzalez with his father in Cuba. But it is not obviously right, and to ask for an independent review of the details of his situation before sealing his future is neither outrageous nor overly political. It is merely prudent.
© Copyright 2000, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell