saving elian
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interview: damian fernandez

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A professor of international relations at Florida International University, his research work has focused on Cuban politics and Latin American international relations.
What was the Elián saga all about?

I think that you must understand the Elián case as a metaphor, as the politics of passion. Basically, both sides, in Cuba and in the diaspora, were fighting over the nation of tomorrow. Elián represents a nation--the young nation, the nation that will be. And both sides wanted to guide the future of that nation. And therefore, you have this emotional intensity and this passionate pursuit of keeping Elián on your side.

What does sending him to Cuba mean?

For the conservative Cuban-Americans, sending Elián to Cuba was sending Elián to hell. It became a crusade against the evil represented by Fidel Castro and communism. It was also a way of vindicating their own position as exiles.

Were they expelled, or did they leave?

Well, some were exiled forcibly, and others chose that course of action. But it was a combination. There was no space within Cuban society for dissent in 1959, in 1960, and increasingly so throughout the 1960s. But others chose and others did not choose. Some young children were sent without their parents into exile.

i really can't tell you we controlled the events, because i believe if the foundation had controlled events, the outcome probably would have been much different. Who were the Pedro Pan children?

The Pedro Pan children were a group of children in the early 1960s who were sent out of Cuba through the Catholic Church, without their parents. The idea was to save the children from communism, and the parents would pay this great sacrifice of being without their kids. Those "Pedro Panners," as they're called, now in their 40s and their 50s, took a leading role in the Elián case, because they could identify with the plight of Elián. Some of them were arguing that if their parents made that sacrifice, now Elián's mother and his father could also pay the price of distance for Elián's freedom and Elián's future.

What does "the politics of passion" mean?

I think there's a tendency in Cuban politics to construe politics as a crusade for ultimate moral goods. It's an imperative for the absolute morality, for the nation as a whole. It's quite idealistic, and therefore you get this emotional intensity, this charge in politics, which, for others, is very hard to understand. But Cuban-Americans and Cubans on the island feel this drive, and they feel politics as a crusade, as a quest for the ultimate good.

This means there can be no compromise.

There's no compromise. The politics of passion is basically "winner takes all." It's a "do or die" campaign. There's no middle ground, there's no moderation, there's no practical solution. It's either right or wrong. It's either here or there. It's black or white. There's no gray.

And Castro is wrong. . . .

Exactly. It's a polarization of good versus evil, and both sides in Cuba and the diaspora see each other as right or wrong, depending on where you stand.

What was the Elián story about?

To understand the Elián case, you really must understand it symbolically. Elián is a metaphor for the Cuban nation, and it's a nation in crisis, a shipwrecked nation. And both sides, here in Miami and there in Havana and throughout Cuba, are fighting for the nation of tomorrow. Who would have the right to guide this nation into the twenty-first century? Both wanted to legitimize their own position, and say, "We are right. We deserve this future. We can dictate what Cuba tomorrow is going to be like." And that is why it was such a passionate fight. It was really a crusade for the nation that will be.

Why did it become religious?

Precisely because it is a struggle for the nation. Nations and myths always go hand in hand. And it is a nation in crisis that looks for other worldly, extra-providential kinds of answers to the earthly problems that both the Cuban-Americans here and Cubans over there are dealing with. It is not unusual in Cuban history and the history of other societies to look for heavenly answers to very mundane problems.

Elián was perceived as Christ-like; Elián was a miracle child; Elián was the son of a Cuban-African god. People saw in Elián something more than just a little boy that had lost his mother in a very tragic seascape from Cuba. That is precisely why people felt so strongly about keeping Elián on this side. They were fighting for good; they were fighting for almost a demigod. And that god would also be the promise of a better future for Cuba.

Would it also be vindication?

Definitely. Both sides wanted to vindicate its position. The Cuban side was saying on the island, "We provide for our kids, we are sovereign, we believe in the unification of father and son." On this side, people were saying, "Elián deserves to live in freedom." And that is why the emotions and the passions were so strong in this case.

Are Cubans not content in America?

Well, the Cuban-American community is going through a very difficult moment. As a result of the Elián case, but also before Elián, there was a vacuum of leadership in a context that was not necessarily the most propitious for the Cuban-American right, that is, the sustenance of the embargo. There was a doubt as to who would follow Jorge Mas Canosa's footsteps. In that context, Elián was a catalyst. Elián was a test case for the new leadership. Who will follow Jorge Mas Canosa? Who would have the authority, the moral and the leadership qualities to carry the fight forward?

They didn't do very well . . .

No. The Elián case has been disastrous for the Cuban-American community on several levels. One, in terms of leadership. There is no leader in sight now, and everyone is running for cover. Also it has been terrible for the image of Cuban-Americans. Once perceived as golden exiles, that image is tarnished because of the media portrayal of a handful of Cuban-Americans, when in fact there are 700,000 Cuban-Americans in south Florida. It has been very, very sad and has led to another level of frustration for this community.

Do they foster an atmosphere of intimidation and fear?

I don't think it's intimidation or fear. But there's a sense of self-censorship, combined with a notion that, since we are fighting the politics of passion, we all need to rally around the flag. . . . toe the line. Any deviation might spell disaster for the cause at large. And there are many people that believe something in private and say the contrary in public.

And what about democracy in this country--what are their views on that?

Our sense of democracy, I think, is different. Our sense of democracy has been influenced not only by US experience and theories of liberal democracy, but also by the experience of corporatism and the Spanish influence in Cuba. So why should we be expected--at least Cuba as a nation--to follow the same model of liberal democracy? For us Cuban-Americans, there are some civic lessons that we need to learn.

But by the same token, Cuban-Americans have about the highest voter turnout rate of any ethnic group in the United States, so I see us as a study in contradictions. We can be very civic, but we also have uncivil tendencies. We can be very successful economically, but sometimes not so successfully conduct ourselves in politics.

Was Elián a referendum on the US embargo against Cuba?

Elián was a catalyst for the opposition to the embargo. It allowed people who had been waiting to attack the embargo policy to come out in full force and wage this policy battle in Washington. Elián served as a lightning rod, and that is why the frustration is running deeper in Cuban Miami.

What struck you as one of the most interesting aspects of the Elian saga?

One of the most interesting things about the Elián case to me was how it changed from a very small issue into a wide community-based problem. Initially, it was really older Cuban-American exiles that were fighting this war. Eventually, it was younger Cuban-Americans from all social classes. Even Central Americans joined in some ways, and this reached a mythical proportion. This started really as another "bosarito," another young rafter. And it ended being an epic of the community and the nation at large. The dynamics of that process are fascinating.

How do the Cuban exiles see themselves, their identity--do they feel they are Americans, Cuban-Americans?

A minority resent being called Cuban-American. They still want to hold to the identity of exiles. They were expelled or they had to flee, and they feel, "This is who I am." You're talking about very deep-seated emotional personal issues about identity--very foundational issues. But others have embraced their hybrid or their transnational identity of being partly Cuban and partly American, especially the younger generation. They embrace this country. But at times of problems, you see the Cuban flags waving again in Miami.

Exiles tend to live in the past. Exiles are broken people. And that identity of exile makes people always look at the past, look at Cuba through the thick mist of nostalgia. That is where they live. That is who they are. Any full integration into the United States would mean a change of identity, and renouncing the very emotional and foundational aspect of their being as exiles.

after elian our power has been eroded, and in fact, elian left all of us ship-wrecked. Do they feel guilty about leaving Cuba?

That is one of the unanswerable questions. What would have happened if the million or so Cubans who left the island had stayed? Would the society have responded to their demands for openness? Could they have made a difference? I think there's always a guilt associated with surviving, and the guilt here is having left the island. But many of those people who left thought that they would return in two weeks, in a year, surely by next Christmas. So it's hard to place blame, and it's hard to second-guess history.

Were they waiting for the US to topple Castro?

Yes, there's always been a sense that the US will help us save the day. And that is also why the Elián case has led to great frustration--because the would-be savior, the United States, did not save the nation, like it did not save Cuba during the Bay of Pigs. They did not really intervene in Cuba militarily, and now once again they have dashed our hopes. That helps explain why the Cuban flags are waving again in Miami, because the exiles feel that we cannot trust the US government. We, in fact, have to resort to our primordial identity of Cubans. We are only here on borrowed time, and on borrowed land.

But don't they--the Cuban exile community--bear responsibility for how the Elian story ended, the strategy, the tactics they used?

We have mishandled the Elián case. I think there was a great lost opportunity in the Elián affair to talk about family reunification, to talk about human rights in Cuba. We must always recognize that there is international law, and family law, that spells out that parents and their siblings should be together. But if we had shifted the focus of attention away from the little boy to the larger issues of politics inside Cuba, we would have been able to win this issue. In fact, the only winner here has been Fidel Castro.

How did the Elián case start?

It started just as another case of a boy that reaches the Florida coast. This case was very sad, because a six-year-old boy lost his mother and his stepfather and came here alone. Very charming, and definitely engaging. But it becomes a political case, once Fidel Castro makes it such. He demands the return of Elián. At that point, most people believe that Elián should be returned to the father. Once Fidel makes this a political case, this side reacts to Fidel's words and takes the opposite position almost automatically. With very little thought as to the legal basis of their position, there is almost an engagement, a negative codependency here that allows this to happen. If he stands here, I will take the opposite position. And that reflects reaction, and led us down the wrong road.

...I think that some of the leaders that were very closely aligned with the process realized that this was a losing proposition. The law was against their side, and they wanted to do whatever was necessary to lose with some honor and some grace--and that was not tenable at the end. It seems that there was some in-fighting going on between the family and the political handlers, and time just ran out.

What are your feelings about Reno negotiating?

This is very surprising that the attorney general flies to Miami to try to appease a family. That's most unusual. Still, she was not able to appease everybody. And she was the target of great verbal abuse by this community. Therefore, my conclusion about this whole affair is, if Cuban-Americans continue to have this exceptional view of themselves and this hyper-inflated perspective of their power . . .

At the end of the day they did not have such power, and they were not exceptional. Therefore, they were confronted with their own smallness and the frustration sets in. It's highly unusual for the state attorney to intervene in such a small case. But it became a huge case because of the way that the Cuban-American leadership made it so.

Why was the raid so shocking?

The raid was so shocking, I think, because of the force used, because of all the rhetoric that had been voiced before about stopping the federal marshals from coming in. Once again, US power defeats Cuban-American wishful thinking, and we've had a history of US interventionism in Cuba. This cannot be forgotten. And the United States once again uses its imperial power to fight off any attempt of the Cuban-Americans or Cubans to carry forth. It was quite a day in Miami that day. And the picture in the newspapers throughout the world also showed US power against this small child. Elián represented the nation, the future of that nation that, in some ways, is under the tutelage of the United States. And it echoes the history of Cuban nationalism, or lack thereof. ...

One of the lessons from the Elián case is that Cuban nationalism is very close to the surface of Cuban-American politics. There is a radical, nationalistic, anti-US tendency in our political culture that's not far from the surface. We see it in the flags waving in Miami. These are US citizens who vote, who usually are Republican, who have been quite successful, economically, and still they wave the nationalistic flag. That, to me, is very surprising.

So there is a divided loyalty?

Very divided loyalties. Very divided loyalties. And it shows that kind of ambiguity. Who are we? Are we exiles? Or are we immigrants? Are we Cuban? Are we Cuban-American? Or are we American? Who are we?

Why do they still want to be labeled "exiles?"

Holding on to the label of exile is a way of vindicating your position in history, to show that although you might have been a loser in the Cuban revolution, you have the moral superiority. You had the moral truth on your side, because Cuban communism, in many ways, has proven to be a failure. The notion of holding on to the exile is not only about identity, but about moral truths that these people hold so dear.

What's so hard for Cuban-Americans to understand is, how can the US government send Elián back to Cuba? That is, how can the US follow normal standard operating procedures vis-à-vis a country that is not normal? To be an exile, in a way, is saying that your country is not normal, that your country doesn't allow you to be a citizen. How can you send this young child back to that country that excludes you, and excludes everything that you think is morally correct? That is why it's so hard, and that is why the treason and the betrayal comes in. Cuban-Americans feel, once again, betrayed. And this notion of betrayal is a notion that disempowers people. It is not that we were betrayed--it is that law and processes and the majority of US opinion were against us. It is not a conspiracy against Cuban Miami. It is just that political forces can be shaped and undone and, as well, acted against us. It is not a conspiracy. But Cuban-Americans tend to look at politics as conspiracy.

Is this politics of passion a Cuban thing?

Well, the politics of passion is more than a Cuban thing. It's a tendency in Cuban politics. But when societies are dealing with foundational issues, and when institutions have not been very good at addressing the problems of society, they tend to fall into these very passionate crusades in which winner takes all. That's an absolute victory for one side versus the other, where there's hardly a terrain of compromise. Those societies fall prey to the politics of passion, and we've seen it in other places. Cuba is just an example, a variation of a theme.

Do Cubans in Cuba share the same passion?

I think it's a common culture. I think the geographic divide is artificial. I think there is a political culture in Cuba that is transnational that we also see replicate itself and be reproduced in the diaspora, in Cuba, in Cuban Miami, and we saw it around Elián. Elián showcased this commonality of political culture and the politics of passion, which are a hallmark of politics both in Miami and inside Cuba.

Do Cuban-Americans see Cubans as the enemy?

Well, the politics of passion tend to undermine someone else's humanity. So Elián's father has no feelings; he's not really a father, because he's part of the machinery of communism. On the other hand, tens of thousands Cuban-Americans travel to Cuba every day. They send gifts, they send money, they reconnect with their family members. The politics of affection are very important for this community. So at the macro level, we might dehumanize the other, but a very practical every day level we surely connect with the Cubans there as well.

The hard-liners don't go to Cuba?

The hard-liners usually do not travel to Cuba, and those of us who travel to Cuba come back changed. Not necessarily in favor of the Cuban government--on the contrary--but really in favor of the Cuban people and the reconnection and the acknowledgment that we are one nation. Like Reagan was changed by his trip to the Soviet Union. It was no longer the Evil Empire when he came back from Moscow. People who go to the island are also changed in very personal ways. And they start questioning the logic and the good and bad aspects of the embargo.

Are Cubans as obsessed as the exile community?

No, precisely because we were the ones who left, we will always have an anger there. They stayed. Their lives were also marked by those of us who left, and they also experienced loss of friendship and loved ones. But their lives are still in their native country. We are the ones that are outside of our homeland.

Is there a feeling of devastation now that Elián has gone back to Cuba?

Elián, I think, will be perceived as the beginning of the end. The Elián case rang an alarm bell against the Cuban right and the supremacy, the Cuban-American perspective, on US foreign policy towards the island. After Elián, our power has been eroded, and in fact, Elián left all of us shipwrecked.

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