saving elian
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interview: joe garcia

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He is executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), the strongest Cuban-American lobby group and the driving force behind the U.S. embargo and isolationist policy toward Cuba.
People say CANF politicized the Elián case, and turned it into a big story

When we look at the Elián situation, I think we need to put it into context. People look at it from totally different perspectives. I speak from a Cuban-American perspective, from living in this community, from someone who has shared the experience that most Cuban-Americans have shared--and when I say this, let me use the words "most" and "Cuban-Americans" to represent about 90 percent of us, as opposed to a holistic totality. We all understood Elián. It's archetypal. We looked at this situation, and it is political. It is as political as the Berlin Wall was political. It is as political as the Cold War was a political series of events.

See, the act of this mother and this child ending up on our shores is not a desperate act of an insane person that happens once every five years. Thousands of people perish in the Straits of Florida every year. We understand it within the context of the Cuban reality. And so it is political. This woman made an act of desperation, because of a political situation that became unbearable. She took the most precious thing in her life, and risked it, and herself. In the end, she paid with her life to try to get a better situation for herself.

Clearly, it is a political reality, that whole group that perished at sea, because there were a small group of survivors,. Political reality is, if Fidel Castro were not in Cuba, that would not have happened.

What was the fight about?

The fight was about freedom. The fight was about democracy. If the Cuban community erred here, we erred in trying to help a young boy be free. We erred in trying to make sure that the death of a mother did not go in vain. We erred in trying to make the world understand that 11 million people live in Cuba in enslavement, and that this is not one act of one desperate mother, but this is an act that occurs on a daily basis. This is significant because it is not an anomaly. This happens all the time. More people die on a yearly basis crossing the Florida Straits than ever died trying to cross the Berlin Wall.

So the fight for Elián was a fight against Castro?

No, I'm saying that the fight for Elián was a fight about freedom, and if you think that that's politics, that's your characterization. But I think a fight about freedom strikes at the very fundamentals of what this nation is about. It strikes the very essence of what the Cold War was about. It's a fight about freedom. It's not about forms of life. This isn't about choosing a democracy or a monarchy or a parliamentary form of government. This is a fight between freedom and not-freedom.

here in miami, communism is still alive.  more people die in the florida straits every year than ever died crossing the berlin wall. What was the role of the foundation, the CANF?

The role of the Foundation in this case was probably diminished. The Foundation, probably since its creation in 1981, has either been running or in the forefront of every single event in not only history of exile, but certainly even in Cuba history. The Foundation has been involved in Cuba's foreign excursions and trying to be on the other side of those foreign excursions. It has played a role in almost all the events of Cuba. And it certainly has led the exiles.

This case I think was an exception, and I'll go back to something I said earlier. This was so easily understood by all Cuban-Americans that it was very difficult for the Foundation to do as it always does, which is to take a leadership role or a guiding role in these events. Everybody understood it. Cuban-Americans knew exactly what the reality of this young boy was, by an overwhelming majority. They sympathized and empathized with those events. And unfortunately, that led to a whole series of people thinking they were acting in the best interest of this young boy, of the exile community, and there are many varieties of ways to act.

To some degree, I wish the Foundation had had more control over the events. We tried to participate as best we could, to protect the interests of both the community and that boy, to make sure things happened properly. But 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. . . . But that's not to be critical of everyone who did things here. Everybody acted to try to do what they thought were in the best interests of the boy.

What was so powerful about the Elián story?

It's defining. It's definitive. It speaks to a reality that most Cuban-American exiles in this community have experienced. And this boy represented something that almost every exile family had lived in one way or another: an uncle that came with you, a sister, a cousin, a young boy who wasn't even yours that you raised. And there are countless thousands of those people. Still today, there are thousands of people like Elián. Castro took up this Elián circumstance more aggressively to make events happen.

Why didn't the rest of America understand?

Why? Because in America we believe the Russians aren't so bad any more and the Cold War has ended. Here in Miami, Florida, communism is still alive. More people die in the Florida Straits every year than ever died crossing the Berlin Wall. We still have spy cases here, almost on a monthly basis. We have a regime, which participates in broadcasting into this community communist programming to make a point.

Likewise, this community participates in broadcasting in the other direction. We have victims that wash up on our shore almost on a daily basis. The Cold War didn't end for us. People are still dying for that pursuit of freedom. It may have ended for America and we may want to move on, but it didn't end here. And that struggle isn't invalidated simply because America wants to move on. It's the very same struggle with the very same justifications.

Is it a problem for you that this issue stops for America, but not for Cubans?

No question about it. We have to re-engage America on the moral consciousness of this war. Across the Florida Straits is a man who has one-fifth of his population living in exile, who has murdered countless thousands, tortured hundreds of thousands. For us, that struggle is still going on. And the events that are occurring in Cuba are a reality that Americans should be aware of. What is the Churchill quote? "America, after it exhausts every other possibility, finally always does the right thing." And this struggle has been difficult. We're moving through it.

And then finally, we've engaged probably one of the greatest political operators in the second half-century in American politics, Bill Clinton. Clearly, Bill Clinton's interest here was clearly not this community, but some foreign policy decision that he had made to deal with Castro. And he took from us the high ground, which he's always been able to do. You know the carcasses of his adversaries litter Washington, D.C., and this nation. He is a great political operator. I think we're still here. We're still strong. But clearly, he was able to take the high moral ground from us--something that I think we'll reclaim within a short time.

Does Elian's father want him?

I think there's a possibility. Let me put that into context. The whole argument here has been lost about a custody battle. This is not a custody battle. But what we as Americans fail to understand, because we live in such a wonderful country, is the reality of countries like Cuba, where it is not a question about you alone and your decisions. It is about your family, those you love, those who are your friends, being victimized by a decision that the regime does not agree with.

The reality is that this man is not acting in his free will. But even if he's acting on his free will, here's the question to you. If a man is convicted of murder and is going to spend the next 30 years or 10 years in a jail, would you give him custody of his son to take to that jail? And then, let me put it into Cold War terms--which it's unfortunate that we've moved on as a nation, but we've forgotten the morality of that war. . . . If this mother would have been crossing the Berlin Wall and she would have been blown to smithereens, and the child in her arms would have landed in the West ten years ago, we would have probably gone to thermonuclear global war to not allow that child to be returned. I don't think it would have ever gotten that, because I think the balance of power would have stopped that. But the truth is, that as a nation, we would have thought that this was worthy of that fight.

Some say the Anglo sense of democracy is different from the Cuban sense of it.

No, if you want to find someone that says that, I can go to Iowa and find someone that says exactly the same thing, and will look just as ridiculous. That's not the point. . . . At no point was there violence here, at no point was there...was there an abuse of the system. We legally used the system to the very edges, and that is precisely what democracy is about--using due process.

What is your view of the outcome of this case, and it's impact on your community?

We lost this small battle. But then again, who did we lose to? The exile community within the Hispanic terms of the American consciousness--we are a minority within a minority. There are about two million of us, if you extrapolate those who are the children of Cuba. And we engaged in a struggle with the most powerful man in American government and every institution that that government has at its disposal, including weapons, arms, and military men. They extracted this child from us, and used every power of that institution to cast us in a bad light. But you know what? We probably did lose that particular small battle there, but as a community, I would contend to you that we are stronger today than we were two months ago.

What are your thoughts on why the battle of Elián was lost?

Why is the battle lost? Elián is a symbolic issue. The battle is much more important. The battle is about 11 million. It is like saying that because a crucifix is crushed, then Christianity is destroyed. Elián is a symbol, which we all understand and appreciate. And again, I don't think you should leave it, because I think it's significant. When the Mariel boatlift happened, a whole series of things that happened. Exile leadership was pretty much destroyed. There was the perception that Cuban-America was wiped out because the press was hungry for these criminals and the things that came from them. . . . The Mariel boatlift was probably one of the most strengthening events of the exile community; maybe Nietzschean, in the sense that if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger.

Clearly, Elián has not killed us. This group is stronger than ever before. The Cuban-American National Foundation memberships are up, and its voice is probably stronger today, because we know exactly who our friends are and where we need to go find our enemies. That makes us better. And it makes our community better.

What did you expect of the US government?

I expected the government to give us due process, to let this go through the course of law the way we normally do. There are literally thousands of children, in fact thousands of parents across the world, who would have loved Bill Clinton to act this way to get their children back. They've been waiting years to get their children, yet this administration hasn't acted that way in those cases. But clearly the foundation and its leadership realize that there were situations at play here, probably a little bit greater because it was something that Clinton had to do by some type of agreement with someone else.

What about Castro's role?

I blame them both. I think it's embarrassing. It's embarrassing for the most powerful nation of the world to allow a tinpot dictator, a murderer, drug trafficker, to tell the most powerful nation in the world what to do. He forced the most powerful nation in the world to literally violate due process and to act like a thug nation. I think it's unfortunate.

You think that's what happened?

Yes. Now, do I think that it should have been avoided. I would have liked to have seen it avoided. I would like to have seen some type of solution to this problem. But think about it. Here is the most powerful nation in the world doing what all Americans know that this dictator wanted. The United States has thousands and thousands of kids who are in the same situation, and the United States government isn't sending in military escorts to remove these kids. They are allowing due process to go its full course. And quite frankly, as a fan of Janet Reno for many years, as someone who lived in this community, I was quite disappointed in her. Literally, a tinpot dictator and his attorney were telling the US government what to do.

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