Looking Back at the Elian Gonzalez Debacle
It’s hard to believe it was a decade ago. But it actually is the tenth anniversary of the day that heavily armed INS agents extricated Elian, then six years old, from the fanatically anti-Castro exile community that had made him a symbol of their cause, and returned him to his father in Cuba — where, as Tim Padgett writes in this very interesting retrospective, he should have been taken from the moment he was rescued from that capsized boat, crammed with people being smuggled out of Cuba, after seeing his mother drown in the waters off the coast of Florida.
Looking back on that melodrama now, the hysteria can hardly be credited. I’m talking full-blown, off-the-rails hysteria that went on for five months, the accusations hurled: oh, the monstrous cruelty of returning this poor little boy to his Communist prison where he would be turned into a useful drone, and his father oh his father what a terrible man, how could any father condemn his own child to life in a Communist prison camp where he would never know the lifestyle his relatives could show him in America — look! see how happy he is in that photo with the stuffed animals and the balloon! And his father doesn’t really love him anyway, if he did he would come to Miami to see him and if he loved him he would give him up, into the free and loving arms of America — for surely the freedom to grow up in comfort and prosperity is so much more important than being with his father after the poor boy’s mother just drowned in the ocean!
As someone said at the time — a remark that has stuck with me over the years — “It’s as if an entire population has lost the ability to care for their children.”
The most fascinating, and deeply instructive, thing about all this, though, is how little it matters now. It doesn’t matter at all. It’s completely unimportant and all but forgotten. In fact, the most significant consequence of Pres. Clinton’s decision (albeit belated) to return Elian Gonzalez to his father is one that wasn’t even thought of when the decision was made (emphasis is mine):
And yet, despite how trivial the Elián episode now looks at a decade’s distance — a possible inspiration for the reality TV craze that soon followed — it was arguably the kind of fight Americans need to see from time to time. … But more important, it reaffirmed the rule of law and how reliable it usually is, or is supposed to be, in this nation more than in any other.
While in Miami last weekend, former President Bill Clinton, who occupied the White House in 2000, defended his decision to enforce the law and forcibly give Elián back to his dad. “If I had said, ‘I don’t like Cuba and I don’t care what the international law is,'” Clinton said, “then not only me but no other American President would have been able to say with a straight face, ‘You can’t kidnap [American children] and keep [them]'” in other countries. The U.S., to cite just one example, would have had greatly diminished standing last year when it demanded that Brazil return nine-year-old Sean Goldman to his father in New Jersey (which it did, in time for Christmas).
Kind of takes your breath away when you really think about it. This is one instance in our history when we did not have to pay the price for our leaders’ stupid decisions — because in this instance the decision made was the right one.
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