People say CANF politicized the Elián case, and turned it into a big
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
What is your view of the outcome of this case, and it's impact on your
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
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.
home · analyses · interviews · timeline · discussion
video excerpt · links · readings · synopsis
tapes & transcripts · press · credits
frontline · wgbh · pbs online
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation
top photo © afp/corbis