Friday, October 3, 2014


[We are familiar with the postwar unfriendliness of the US and Russia; Fiedel Castro's conquest of Cuba and its conversion into an island of socialism also made news in 1959. I became aware of the human costs of this little piece of cold war only when I was in America. This was published in Business Standard of 9 May 2000.]


On 25 November, two fishermen fishing off the coast of Florida saw something dark floating on the sea. Getting closer, they found a tyre tube, with a child hanging desperately on to it. The boy was famished and dehydrated. They rushed him to a hospital in Miami. Lázaro Gonzalez, a Cuban emigré, claimed him to be Elian, his grandnephew, and took him home.
Just two days earlier, seven people had held on to the tube that Elian was found hanging on to. They were amongst the fourteen whose boat had capsized; it had only two tubes, and they divided into two groups of seven each. One by one, all dropped off, eaten by sharks, chilled by the sea, or half dead of thirst. They included Elisabeth Broton, Elian’s mother. Before she gave up, she gave him her last bottle of water.
Elisabeth was escaping from Cuba with her boy friend, Lázaro Rafael Munero, and his family. Lázaro was a casual worker who sometimes sold soft drinks on the beach or drove a taxi. In summer 1997 he had once before escaped to Miami and lived with his aunt. After doing low-paid casual jobs for a few months he got homesick, bought a motorized rubber raft, and made it back to Cuba. There he was picked up by the Cuban coast guard, beaten up and jailed for two months. When he was released, he went first to live with Elisa and her mother. Her mother did not like him, so they moved into a rented apartment. But soon the call of Yuma – as the Cubans call America – beckoned him. He got hold of a homemade boat, persuaded his family as well as Elisa, and set off northwards late in the night of 21 November.
By the afternoon of the 22nd, their escape was common knowledge, and Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian’s father, was worried. Elisa and he had got married when they were both in their teens and working in hotels on the beach near Cárdenas. They had done well enough to build a little house and buy a second-hand car. But then Juan Miguel started chasing other women. The marriage broke up, and Elisa went to live with her parents. Juan Miguel married Nersy, with whom he has an eight-month-old son.
Guessing what had happened, Juan Miguel rang up Lázaro, his father Juan’s brother in Miami. Lázaro knew nothing that could help, but promised to keep a watch. When Elian was taken to hospital, Lázaro went there and claimed him. He rang up Juan Miguel and told him that Elian was safe, though his mother was drowned.
Elian is a sweet, photogenic kid, and made big news. His grand-uncle sent him to a local school; he started learning to play baseball, and made new friends. The press soon made him a celebrity.
Apart from Lázaro, Juan Miguel had three uncles and four aunts, all brothers and sisters of his father. Of the nine siblings, six were in Miami, and three in Cuba. The elders in Miami started ringing him and telling him to come over: Elian had attracted contributions and publicity, and they were sure Juan Miguel could get a house, a job and all the comforts of the US.
But comforts were not all that was involved. By then, the publicity given to Elian attracted Cuban emigré politicians in Miami, who had made a career out of enmity to Castro. They had supporters amongst the local Cuban people, many of whom had suffered grievously under Castro before they were allowed to emigrate or had illegally escaped. For them, keeping Elian in the US was a blow for freedom; sending him back to Cuba was to send him into slavery. A politician named Armando Gutierrez took the Lázaro Ganzalez family under his wing.
Equally, the publicity made Elian a prize in Cuba. Soon after he became a press celebrity, Juan Miguel was summoned to Havana, and taken before El Jefe (the Chief), as Fidel Castro is called in Cuba. Apparently, Castro told him to choose – that he would allow Juan Miguel to migrate if he wanted. Juan Miguel said he was not going to. Then the Cuban government sent a diplomatic note to the US government to return Elian.
In Washington, the person in the hot seat was Janet Reno, who is the secretary in charge of Justice Department. In their eyes, Elian was an illegal alien, and had to be returned to his country of origin unless specified circumstances argued otherwise – unless, for instance, he was likely to be tortured or oppressed in his home country. Also, according to US law, he was a minor, and had no voice of his own; he had to be represented by one of his parents – namely, Juan Miguel. US diplomats in Havana interviewed Juan Miguel, and found him to be normal, and willing to take his son. So the only question in the eye of Janet Reno was, how to transfer Elian to Juan Miguel.
But that would require Elian to be separated from the family of Lázaro, who was by then determined to keep Elian. Even if he were not, there was Gutierrez asking him to strike a blow for freedom, there were agents from New York offering him deals to write a book or make a film – and there were crowds outside his house, shouting death to Reno. He filed a case in a family court for the custody of Elian; he lost. Then he filed an appeal; and the Federal Appeals Court came to a curious decision. It decided that since the appeal had been filed in Elian’s name, he was plaintiff. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which had to decide on his extradition, had not interviewed him to ascertain his wishes. In the circumstances, the Court deferred the hearing to 9 May.
So on the night of Saturday the 22nd April, immigration agents with submachine guns stormed the Lázaro Gonzalez family home. They broke open the front door, rushed past the terrified residents, and found Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who had found Elian, hiding in a wardrobe. They whisked away the screaming child, bundled him into a white station wagon, and sped him to an airport. He was flown to Washington, and taken to his father.
Two photographs dominated the next day’s newspapers. One, taken by a press photographer, showed a gunman facing the fisherman and the boy in the wardrobe; the other showed a smiling Elian in his father’s arms. But both were overshadowed by a press conference given by the Lázaro family, friends and supporters. Lázaro’s 21-year-old daughter, Marisleysis, held the center stage with an impassioned, tearful outpouring of indignation. She had looked after Elian all these months, and was obviously ravaged by his loss.

I have gathered all this from the press and television, sitting three thousand miles away from the seat of events. Although its sensationalism and raw polemics put me off, I must say that competition drives the US media to make news more compelling than fiction; as a result they involve the people of America far more closely in public affairs than we in India do. That is what we miss.