Located 80 miles east of Havana on Cuba’s northern coast, the city of Cárdenas, from which young Elián Gonzalez comes, is a relatively poor but bustling and friendly town of some 40,000one of those places where you instantly sense that everyone knows everyone else. It’s a place of human scale, of immaculately clean streets, of single or two-story structures, many in the stately colonial style dating from the pre-1898 era of Spanish rule. Like most cities on the island, though, Cárdenas has seen better days. Its buildings could use a paint job. Horse-and-buggies now serve as taxis and buses, and the local rum factory has closed. Good jobs, however, are plentiful only eight miles away at the resort town of Varadero, which boasts one of the most beautiful beaches in the whole Caribbeanand indeed both Elián’s parents, Juan Manuel and the now deceased Elizabet, worked there. No, Cárdenas is no Miami Beach. It does not have the glitz, the traffic, the smog, the shopping malls or the proximity of Disney World, not to mention a comparable number of television channels. Yet Cárdenas, one might imagine, would not be a bad place in which to grow up.
Elián should be sent back there as soon as possible. As the Immigration and Naturalization Service has already ruled, the boy belongs with his father, whom no one has contended to be anything but a devoted parent. Every day of delay will only make it that much harder on the boy psychologically. "We regret that emotional or political involvements are obstructing the prompt solution of this conflict," wrote the Cuban bishops in their statement on Dec. 8, "a solution provided by the very basic norms of rights."
Think of the precedent if we do not return the boy to his father. The next time some Iranian or Nigerian or Uzbekistani parent seizes a child and flees back to his or her native country, the American parent will be left with no appeal. "Remember Elián," they will say.
At the moment, U.S. policylike the boyis being held hostage by the fierce partisans of Miami’s Cuban American National Foundation, which wields a power over our nation’s electoral politics entirely disproportionate to its size. In recent years, Washington has lifted bans on the sale of food and medicine to the rogue states of Iran, Libya, Sudan, North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The only country that is denied such humanitarian aid is Cuba. This is an embarrassment and a disgrace. The State Department hardly has a Cuba policy any longer. We have a "South Florida policy," dictated by a spirit of vengeance.
One does not have to love Fidel Castro, El Jefe Maximo, to want to see the boy returned to his homeland. Castro has ruled for 41 years and has seen eight U.S. presidents come and go. He remains popular, but revolutionary slogans now ring hollow, and for most young Cubans the official socialism holds no appeal at all. The Elián case has provided Castro with his biggest propaganda victory since the Bay of Pigs. It has not only brought party cadres into the streets; it has galvanized a broader, otherwise disenchanted public. Cubans have rallied together, for the moment forgetting the glaring failures of the party and the regime. Accordingly, the aging dictator has been able to revert to his favorite occupation, scapegoating the great capitalist monster to the north. It is bad enough that the U.S. economic embargo imposes severe material hardship on the island’s people. It is simply intolerable and unnecessary that we can now be portrayed as a callous kidnapper of children.
Those who would keep Elián in the United States have made much of the advantages he would enjoy in Miami that are foreclosed to him in Cárdenas. But this would be true for any 6-year-old in Cuba. Undeniably, life in Florida would be easier; life in Cuba is hard. But things are getting better in today’s Cuba. The tourist industry is booming, and last year the economy grew by six percent. What was, even before the revolution of 1959, Latin America’s most secular country is now undergoing a widespread religious revival. If you are a Christian today in Cuba, you are by definition seriously committed. Finally, at age 73, Castro’s days are numbered, and his successors, whoever they are, will have to face a more vocal and broad-based movement for political and social liberalization. In addition to having a father’s guidance and love, Elián would be growing up during this critical "transition" period, a time in Cuba that will be filled with promise. Why prevent him from taking part in his nation’s new moment?