Why Jimmy Carter Should Have Visited Elián's Hometown

There's no doubt that Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba is historic. He is the first U.S. president, former or serving, to visit the country since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

He was invited by President Fidel Castro to launch his own inspections of Cuban laboratories, in search of bioweapons development. And on Tuesday, in a speech broadcast live on Cuban television, Carter called on Castro to broaden human rights and urged the U.S. Congress to lift the four-decade-old trade embargo on Cuba. But there is one stop Carter will not make on his tour of the island nation. He will not be going to Cardenas.

If it weren't for the events of 1999, Cardenas would be just another dusty Cuban town steeped in history. It boasts the oldest statue of Christopher Columbus in the Western Hemisphere. It is where the Cuban flag was first raised in 1850. But most importantly, it is the home of Elian Gonzalez, the sole survivor of a refugee ship wrecked off the coast of Florida in 1999. The tug-of-war between the United States and Cuba over the custody of Elian became an international incident. The boy's return to Cuba was a bitter defeat for Miami's Cuban community and was portrayed in Cuba as a major victory over the imperialistas to the north.

Everyone in Cardenas, a town of 75,000, was affected by the story. But today, Cardenas has more or less returned to normal. The media has left. Few tourists stop by to admire Cardenas' quaint streets, lined with glorious murals of Che Guevara and the socialist slogans reading EN CADA BARRIO REVOLUCION (Revolution in every neighborhood) and incredible houses--architectural glories in dire need of repair. Elian's grandmother sits quietly on her balcony, undisturbed--at least by this reporter.

But the memory of Elian lives on, as the dream of revolution still does, throughout Cuba. And the calm after the storm seems to have given the people of Cardenas time to contemplate the ugliness of the whole Elian affair. Today, the little boy is 8 years old and, according to Fidel Castro's government, a normal, happy Cuban boy. The truth, according to those living in Cardenas, is a little different. "He became a symbol," says one resident, who wished to remain anonymous. "Cuba pulled and the United States held on. It was a tragedy--two stupid governments, one innocent little boy."

Today, Elian lives under constant surveillance, bodyguards at the ready. After all, foreign journalists still pop in every few months in search of an update. They're not the only ones who want a piece of little Elian, either. "Fidel still uses him for his own ends whenever he wants," says the resident.

Cardenas might have been a good stopping point for Carter--not because of Elian, so much, but because it reveals so much about Cuba that Castro doesn't want anyone to see--the disparity between tourist Cuba and the one that lies beyond its gated walls. Cardenas is less than 15 miles from the major tourist resort of Varadero, but Varadero seems as far away as Florida--and for some, just as difficult to get into.

In Varadero, as in many of Cuba's major resorts like Cayo Largo and Cayo Coco, Cubans are rarely admitted into the nicer state-owned hotels, even if they are lucky enough to have the money. Some Cubans cannot even visit Varadero. "I am banned from Varadero, entirely," explains "Juan," a musician from Cardenas. Three years ago, he had been making a living playing traditional Cuban Son on his guitar for tourists on the beach. But according to locals, the Cuban government has an unofficial motto: "A hassle-free tourist is a happy tourist."

Confined to Cardenas, Juan now looks for any gig that will pay him a few pesos. "I wish I could earn dollars again," he says. As he gazes from his roof towards Varadero, and further north, the Florida Keys, he says he is excited about Carter's visit to Cuba. "I would very much like to play him a song," Juan says. What song? "'My Way' by Frank Sinatra," he replies, launching into the opening chords. To Juan, this song is truly appropriate to the circumstances. Lungs extending to full capacity, he sings the first verse in broken English: 'And now, the end is near, and so I face, the final curtain ...'"

Carter's visit may not produce more than a few forced smiles and handshakes, But its a symbolism was weighty, his uncensored speech to the Cuban people a milestone. And for the people of Cardenas, it all signals a little bit of hope.