What was the Elián saga all about?
A professor of international relations at Florida International University, his
research work has focused on Cuban politics and Latin American international
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
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
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
What struck you as one of the most interesting aspects of the Elian
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Is there a feeling of devastation now that Elián has gone back to
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
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