Elian Gonzalez and Raul Castro appeared together last night to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Elian’s return to Cuba, after what may have been the most widely-publicized custody battle in history. Last night’s ceremony piqued my interest because I was in Cuba myself ten years ago, at the height of the Elian controversy. I heard firsthand the pleas from the Cuban people for Elian to be returned home to his father, and I saw their protests in the streets.
Elian was only five years old when he was found, floating in an inner tube, by a Florida fisherman and delivered to his relatives in Miami. His mother, who’d attempted to flee to the U.S. with him, had drowned en route.
As the Miami relatives resisted returning the boy to his father in Cuba, arguments erupted both for and against sending the boy home. Prominently in the “for” camp was the fact that his only living parent was in Cuba, and desperately wanted to raise the boy. In the “against” camp were Americans touting the fact that America is a much better, freer, more bountiful place to live, a place filled with opporunity.
That’s probably true for an adult. Cuba can be terribly restrictive for grown-ups. Yet for kids, in some ways it’s a healthier place to be. Everyone has health care – not just in emergency visits, but well visits and routine check-ups, also. All children are guaranteed fresh milk and food. And guns in schools, or in the general population? Unheard of. Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate than the U.S. — though given how far down America falls on the list, that’s no surprise. When it comes down to it, Cuba is a fine, safe place for most children. I’m not sure you can say that about the U.S.
In the year 2000, the Cuban population was hurt and saddened that anyone could be saying that they, as a country, didn’t treat their children well. Doctors who operated local clinics, schoolteachers, tour guides, they all came together for the cause. While in Havana, I passed more than one tree with the sentiment “Libertad Elian” haphazardly etched into the trunk.
Yesterday, Elian spoke generously about his American relatives. “I don’t have anger for them,” he said. “It’s only that it wasn’t the best effort possible, and thanks to a large part of the American public, and our public, today I’m with my father and I feel happy here.”
PHOTO: Time magazine