The Sins Of The Fathers

One thing is certain: they would never have dared do this to a mother. The sad saga of Elian Gonazalez, a small boy turned into a political soap opera by people of dueling opinions who profess his best interests, has been full of double standards. But one of the most obvious is this: had it been the child's father who had taken him in a rickety boat across the broad swath of ocean between Cuba and Florida, had the child's sole surviving parent been a weeping woman after his father disappeared beneath the surface of the water as the boy floated in an inner tube in shark-infested seas, that woman would not have had to become a frustrated supplicant, pressed into begging for the right to her own son.

But like most modern fathers Juan Miguel Gonazalez has been covertly considered a second-string parent. He maintained good relations with Elian's mother, even when they were not together; he provided a home for the boy at least as often as she did. Yet he was forced to wait and explain and grovel to be given the right that most of us take for granted, the right to keep our families intact.

Blinded by their righteous hatred for Fidel Castro, many of the good Cuban fathers of Miami forgot the values of the home country they love so well and the adopted country they have embraced and transformed. They made a brave decision years ago, to leave their towns and villages and the graves of their parents, to do what was best, in their judgment, for their children. Out of a culture of strong families and strong fathers they found the strength to start over, in a place where they surrounded themselves with sights and sounds so familiar that their part of the city became known as Little Havana.

How could they deny another father his right to embrace the familiar, and to do what he thinks best for his child? How could men who proudly proclaim themselves head of the household wind up trying to relegate this man to a bit part in the life of his eldest son? They have insisted that Elian's father is controlled or manipulated by a malevolent dictator, that the mouth of Juan Miguel speaks the words of Fidel. But perhaps the man simply likes his quiet life in the country where he was born, without regard to its political or ideological underpinnings. Perhaps Juan Miguel Gonazalez thinks differently, wants different things for his children, than the people who linked arms and surrounded the house in Miami, turning it into a cage for Elian. After all, the best hallmark of life here in America is the freedom to make different choices than your neighbors, your countrymen, even choices that they think are crazy.

It shames all the men in this country, and his own, that Juan Gonazalez, despite numerous reports that he has always been a good and loving parent, has been forced to justify his own fatherhood. The claim of a mother, the tears of a mother, would have been acknowledged much sooner. One of the arguments that his relations have used for keeping Elian in Miami is that he now has a surrogate mother of a sort, the young female cousin who has helped care for him since he watched his own mother drown. Of course he clings to that young woman, sits in her lap, just as the other day he sat in the lap of the attorney general, Janet Reno. His recent life has been as choppy and unpredictable as the surface of the ocean; he holds tight to what he has, like most children of his age. Unlike other children of his age, however, he finds his waking hours, perhaps his dreams, are full of the chants and the cries of protesters. He has known for many months that the people around him will be happiest if he says he wants to stay put.

The other day he sat on his bed, squirming slightly, and made a videotape in which he said just that. It was a disturbing piece of exploitation that made it clear once and for all that some of the adults in this case had hopelessly confused their own political agendas and the health and happiness of a bereaved child. Sometimes Elian's eyes slide away from the camera, as though he is looking to someone outside the frame for guidance, or direction. Then he stares into the lens, wags his finger and addresses his own father in a truculent manner that should have landed him in the corner for a timeout instead of on national television.

This is all wrong. Would any good Cuban father let a 6-year-old dictate the terms of his own life? Papa, I won't go to school. Papa, I won't pick up my toys. Of course not. The job of a parent is to listen, yes, but ultimately to lead. There are endless books about the decline of the family precisely because it is the little village in which children, and citizens, best grow. But, as every competent parent knows, the village is not a democracy any more than Castro's Cuba is. It is imperfect everywhere, in places of great plenty and great want, but it is a reflection of the strongest ties we humans ever manage to rouse from our sometimes constricted hearts.

If it was not so important, if politics was all, why not round up the children of Kosovo and put them on troop planes, to be reared where there are Nikes and cell phones and Corian countertops and free elections and free speech? Why not adopt whole villages of children in countries that lack the opportunities of our own? Because good parents are more important than good politics; because the latter grows from the bedrock built by the former. Fidel Castro has called himself the father of his people precisely so he can usurp that all-important role, to substitute the collective for the individual. Sadly, in this case his opponents have done the same. Many of the good Cuban fathers of Miami believe that Elian's return to a homeland captive to communism is a victory for a hated dictator. But Castro has already won, by making them forget and betray what has been most dear to them, the importance of the family, the importance of the father.