saving elian
interview: elena freyre

picture of elena freyre

She is executive director of the Cuban Committee for Democracy, founded in 1993 by moderate Cuban-Americans. Born in Cuba, she came to the United States in 1960 when she was 12 years old. Freyre has returned to Cuba for the first time in 1998 and since then has made three more trips.
What was the Elián saga about?

It was never about a child. It was always about Castro versus the exile community. ... From the beginning, this child was politicized on this side of the Florida Straits, especially after the poster that the Cuban-American National Foundation were planning to take to the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle if Fidel attended. The moment that happened, it was inevitable that the Cuban government was also going to politicize it.

How did it become so huge?

It had all the elements of some sort of Greek mythology. Dolphins were taking care of this child. Our Lady of Charity had guided him in. He was at sea for three days and yet he had almost no exposure. It grew to these mythical proportions where people got absolutely drawn into it. Then, of course, it was tailor-made for the media. This child was not some ugly black child from Haiti. This child was an adorable-looking little boy--very photogenic, very, very, very precious to the camera. At that point, all bets were off.

What does the Miami community want?

Very few people would admit it, but they want the Marines. They want the US to send its Marines to Cuba, clean up Cuba, and then give it back to them.

Do you really think so?

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. There is a group of people in Miami that are never going to get what they want, which is to rule Cuba in the future, unless it's through a US intervention. It wouldn't happen any other way. To them, whether it happens because the US gets fed up and decides to go in there like they did in Panama--which is of course not the same situation--or whether it happens because they continue to tighten the embargo to the point where the people of Cuba can't handle it anymore and they take to the streets and such a chaotic situation ensues that the US government thinks they have to intervene. . . . Whether it happens that way or the other way, they know that that's the only way they're going to have positions of power in a future of Cuba.

i think that the real "miracles" of elian is that this child is going to show the u.s. and the world just exactly how incredibly hateful these people are. It would be bloody for Cubans, though, wouldn't it?

They don't care about the Cuban people. If you remember, when the Berlin Wall fell and Cuba lost all the subsidies it had from the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries, there was real hunger on the island. I didn't hear any calls for a huge amount of humanitarian aid. On the contrary, two things happened: one, the embargo was tightened to see if the Cuban people would suffer still more; and two, people here were celebrating. They were putting champagne bottles in their refrigerators. It's a good thing they didn't open them.

What struck you about the Elián story?

The first thing that really appalled me was what was happening around the house. The media had a responsibility in it, but the family had a huge responsibility. The family could have stopped it at any time. And instead of stopping it, they encouraged it. That child was paraded around like some sort of trophy for almost 24 hours every day. He was brought out at one o'clock in the morning to wave to his adoring fans outside. The whole thing was truly disgusting and, in my opinion, very close to child abuse--at the very least, very close to child endangerment. It really was a situation where it was unhealthy for the child. Once the father got here, it was inevitable that that child would be returned to him.

And what if there had been only one camera, or just a few, instead of so many?

It would have helped a lot. The media started to feel bad about what was happening with the child and they actually suggested to the family, to Lázaro, that they could pool and put one camera in an inconspicuous place to make it easier on the child. And 24 hours later, Armando Gutierrez, the family's representative, called the press and said, "Everybody must be here. We want everybody here."

For what purpose?

Because they thought it was helping their cause, and in reality it was the other way around. If I ever wanted to run a campaign, the last person in this city I would call is Armando Gutierrez. It was a PR disaster. Every day that went by, they lost more and more support. They started out with fairly even polls, even though most people wanted the child back with his father. And as the family went on and on and on, they kept losing more and more and more support from the American people.

Were they ever going to give up the child?

Never. Never, never. And they stated this over and over and over again. You had the famous Lázaro tantrum. . . . If the government hadn't come and taken him to give him back to his dad, we would probably still be trying to talk Lázaro into giving him up.

Many thought that their behavior was astonishing when Janet Reno came.

She got on a plane personally--personally got on a plane and pleaded with these people. Whatever possessed them to think that they could say no to the attorney general and the US government is beyond my imagination. People must have been telling him, "Yes, you can do that." Well, you can't do that. You can't do that.

What did you think would happen?

I wasn't sure, but I knew that sooner or later, Janet Reno was going to have to agree to some sort of operation to remove the child. And I think that the facts bear me out. These people had stated that they were law-abiding citizens, that if the order finally came to produce the child they would very sweetly and nicely and cooperatively produce the child. But when they found out that the government was on its way in, they had the AP photographer go in through the back door, and they barricaded the front door with a very heavy couch. They locked it. They locked the door to the bedroom where Donato was hiding in the closet with the kid. They left the government no choice but to go in the way they did. I think they wanted that all along. They wanted that famous picture, that famous image. In reality, they gained a little bit of support that morning. Now, as more and more facts have been coming out, and the government has released details as to why they went in that way, they've lost that support.

How did your husband get involved?

There are two very decent, well meaning Cuban-American businessmen, Carlos Saladrigas and Carlos De La Cruz. Carlos Saladrigas has known my husband for a long, long time. They went to a Jesuit prep high school together. And they asked him if he wouldn't mind coming in and helping them out. That was about three days before the government took Elián.

I was very concerned from the beginning. I told him, "First of all, it's too late." Secondly, at one point we did get a little angry at each other, and I said, "It's the height of arrogance to think that if the attorney general couldn't do it, you guys can do it." And I was also very concerned that he was going to be left in a very, very bad position at the end, because my feeling was that Lázaro was never going to hand over that child.

I remembered that . . . the head of the Cuban-American National Foundation got involved at one point, and had Senator Torricelli mediating between the government and the González family in Miami. They even had a press conference, saying that they got it all solved and brokered a deal. And that was the day that Lázaro said, "Elián doesn't want to leave and I'm not going to make him." And that was the end of that. It was a very bad moment for the foundation. I didn't want my husband to have a very bad moment also. This thing never ended until so many appeals were filed and so many things went on. They were going to fight to the end. They would have never handed over this child.

What did Pedro say?

He thought that there was a shot, but there were a lot of misunderstandings. They thought that they were very close to what the government would agree to, and in reality they were not--they were miles apart. I think that the general feeling at the Justice Department was to give them one last shot at handing over the child; where the feeling here was to still get this family together. It was ludicrous, after everything that had happened, to think that the family was going to happily move to a compound where the Miami family was at one end, and Juan Miguel and his family was at the other, and the kid would go back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball. That would have never happened. Never. I don't think that Craig would have agreed to it. I know Juan Miguel would not have agreed to it. He has said repeatedly that he's willing to meet with the Miami family, but only after they stop trying to take his son away from him. That makes all kinds of sense to me.

Why were they negotiating with Reno, and not with the father?

Reno had said all along that the feeling at Justice and at Immigration was that this father spoke for his child, and that this father was the one who was going to choose what was going to happen to this child. Even if you're negotiating with Reno, you had to be negotiating with Juan Miguel. Did Carlos really think that Janet Reno wasn't going to let Juan Miguel know what was going on with his son, what the plans were?

It's typical, because Juan Miguel has never been seen as his own person in this whole thing. He's either being manipulated by Fidel Castro or he's a puppet of the Justice Department. The man is a man in his own right, a father in his own right. What has been lost in all this is that there is that sacred right that a parent has to his child. I've said many times, had the mother lived, this would have been a completely different case. But here we have the only surviving parent with another family of his own, with a little brother for Elián, who wants his child to come back to him. And if he decides that where he wants to live is in Cárdenas, Cuba or in Japan, in Tokyo, in Madrid, he has a right to live with his child wherever he wants to live.

But they think that Cuba is not normal; it's hell.

The thing is most people who are telling you that have not been to Cuba in the last 40 years. They don't know if it's hell or not. They have no knowledge of the reality of Cuba. And the only way they can keep the myth going is by saying life is untenable in Cuba. Now, if this man goes back and this child grows up to be a happy, productive member of society, you have to admit that maybe it's not that bad--that it is possible to grow up in Cuba and be a happy, healthy productive member of society.

What do they want from the US?

What the traditional exile Cuban-American community wants is the solution to internal Cuban problems, which is to borrow the Marines, have the US government go in there, solve their problem for them and then they can come over and take power again. That's the way it happened in Cuba many times. There was an . . . amendment that gave the United States the right to interfere any time it didn't like the way things were going down there. And when that was abrogated in 1934, the US would still interfere every time it didn't like the way things were going down there. All you have to do is look at why Batista fell. Why did Batista leave? Batista left when the United States said, "No more weapons, no more." My feeling is that very few of them would admit it, but that's what they want. They want US intervention.

And they feel as if they've been betrayed.

Betrayed by whom? This is the problem. It's a myth, and it's a myth that I believe is falling apart now. Their feeling is that the US should act in the best interest of the Cuban exile community. No, the US will act in the best interest of the United States of America, which in reality is why we elect government officials. We do not elect our government officials so they would do what is best for the Cuban exile community. We elect them to do what's best for the country.

fortunately, no bombs have been placed in people's houses for a while now.  you are afraid--but i'm more afraid of being intimidated than i am of being afraid. The Cuban-American community doesn't buy that.

No. They go back to the Bay of Pigs. And, of course, something happened in the Bay of Pigs that was actually not a betrayal, but a reversal of what had been planned. It was awful, trust me. I have many friends who were young and fought there, and I know people who lost relatives. We never think about it, but the Cuban side lost people, too. You're no less of a mother because somebody was fighting on the other side. But plans were changed. The plans were changed because the president of the United States was told by his advisors that it would be a bad thing to carry the plan out the way that it was carried out.

Where I think that they have a point is that, once the decision was made not to continue the bombing--which was crucial to the plan--some sort of plan should have been made to try to rescue the people that were left on the beach. I'm not going to second-guess what the military advisors were telling President Kennedy at the time. The fact is that he did negotiate to bring them out of jail. The fact is that he received them as heroes here. And the fact is that the United States will continue to do what is in the best interest of the government of the United States and what it views as the best interests of the people of the United States--not one small segment of one very tiny community down here in Florida.

Some feel that this betrayal [Elian] is even worse than the Bay of Pigs.

Yes, and I'm glad that they're admitting that. At one point, somebody was asking me questions about the same thing, and I said, "This is the second Bay of Pigs. So we're in agreement about something." But I think that they're looking at it as another betrayal, and I'm looking at it as another fiasco. So we're coming to the same conclusion from two very different points of view.

I think that the real "miracles of Elián," if I want to borrow a phrase from them, is that this child is going to show the United States and in fact the world just exactly how incredibly hateful these people are. Their hatred of one man consumes them to such an extent that it absolutely colors everything they do--even to the point of being so ridiculous to say that a child can't be with his father because we don't agree with where the father wants to live. The political situation there is not to our liking, so distant relatives are going to kidnap a kid away from his dad.

Why are they obsessed with Castro?

I think it's because he is the charismatic leader that they feel took the country away from them. He made it impossible for them to live in their own country and he's still alive. So while he's alive, you focus everything on that one man. Never mind that there are 11 million other people there. And never mind that things have changed, especially in the last ten years. We still think that if Fidel rules everything and Fidel took our country away from us, now we need to hate Fidel. And if we hate Fidel, we have to make sure that Fidel gets nothing.

There is a saying that I'm going to translate very loosely: "Give nothing to the bloody dictator." So that plays into that. "Do not give Elián to Fidel. Let's keep little Elián away from Fidel." They think this man is going to live forever. You have to take into account that Elián is six years old. Whatever possesses them to think that when Elián is 22 or 23, Castro is still going to be alive and the country is still going to be the same? I'm a lot more of an optimist than they are, I think.

Do they consider the people in Cuba the enemy?

Not so much the enemy, but as some sort of puppet. People think that because you live in Cuba, you can't decide anything for yourself--nothing at all. And that's not true. People are free to make many decisions about their own lives in Cuba every day. I have some very good friends that are more recent arrivals, and I have one friend that never stopped practicing the Catholic religion. She went to the university. And yes, she had some problems, but she managed to decide what she wanted to study and go through the university. I think what people don't realize is that a lot of things that have been repeated throughout the 40 years have changed in Cuba. But since we don't go to the country and we don't bother to find out the reality, we simply keep repeating the same things, over and over again.

People who are hard-line don't go to Cuba.

I think so. And a lot of people who go to visit family don't want to talk about the political situation, and are afraid to speak out and say that the economic situation is better. So they go, they see their families, they come back and then they just don't speak about it.

You've been to Cuba?

I have been to Cuba four times. I didn't go back for 38 years. I was 12 years old when I came to this country in 1960. I went back for the first time during the Holy Father's visit to Cuba, and it just absolutely changed my life. It opened my eyes. The reality of the country was so different from what I had been told and what I imagined. I just knew that what we were doing was completely wrong. What we're doing as far as trying to open up the country is probably helping to close it off. I returned a little bit over a year later, because I knew that I couldn't get the whole picture of Cuba, first of all, in one trip, or doing something as incredibly artificial as Pope John Paul's visit. Everybody was on their best behavior, everybody was happy. Everybody breathed an air of freedom that they hadn't in 40 years. So I wanted to go back when times were normal.

I spent ten days not only in Havana, but I went to Cienfuegos, where my parish priest had taken care of a parish right outside Cienfuegos, across the bay for a whole summer. I came back even more resolved. First of all, what we do with the embargo, especially with the inclusion of food and medicine, is totally wrong. Secondly, the embargo itself does nothing but prop up Fidel and the Cuban government. Fidel can blame the embargo for all his woes. There's no aspirin? The embargo. There's no meat? The embargo. There's no freedom? The embargo. As long as we're surrounded by all these hostile forces, we cannot afford to open up, they'll gobble us up.

So every single criticism that is thrown at Fidel, it's the embargo. "It's not me, it's the embargo. It's not the government. We have made mistakes, but if we didn't have the embargo, we probably would be a lot better off and would be able to give more political freedom."

Some have accused Greg Craig, Juan Miguel Gonzalez' attorney, of working for Castro.

That is totally, absolutely ridiculous. Craig is being paid by the National Council of Churches through donations. But they have to say that. And we go back to the same thing--no one has any independent thought here but them.

Everybody who thinks that Elián should be with his father is a communist or an agent of Castro...

An agent of Castro who also wants that child to go to a life of hell, to be personally tortured 24 hours a day by Fidel Castro. What no one is taking into account in this is the very negative message you're sending to the people of Cuba. In effect, you are saying to them, you really cannot raise healthy, productive children. And that is simply not true. The proof of this is Elián. Elián was supposed to be this child prodigy. It turns out that Elián, for five and a half years of his life, lived in Cuba and was raised in Cuba by a Cuban parent and a Cuban mother in that school system that supposedly brainwashes children. I don't think that five months in Miami can be compared to five and a half years in Cuba. So where's the reality here?

...I believe that Elián is going to be a turning point in the history of US-Cuba relations. For the first time in a very, very long time, you have the government of Cuba and the government of the United States cooperating towards a common goal. I think this could open the door to other things. We're going to see other little miracles of Elián. And I think this child also could be some sort of an ambassador for the American people in Cuba. He's been treated very well in this country. A lot of love has been shown to him. It's going to be very difficult for anyone in the future to think that the American people do not have great affection for the Cuban people. So that that might be a good thing that might come out of something that was really a tragedy.

What's it like for you, having spoken out?

So far, they haven't thrown any stones. I am called every name in the book on a regular basis. Sometimes on talk radio, sometimes on the few television programs that have to do with the Cuban exile community. I have had a couple of threats, one that I took seriously. There was a man that used to call me and threaten me after calling me every name in the book. So the Metro-Dade Police Department opened a file and went and paid him a little visit. And that didn't stop him, so I got an attorney to write him a letter to cease and desist or I was going to take further action. In the last three months, or so I haven't heard from him.

The day that they came and they took the child to return him to his father, I kept a very low profile. There's always in the back of your head the idea that maybe someone will translate that rhetoric into actual violence. I'm not going to be intimidated. It's very personal with me. The way I look at it is this: my father, God rest his soul, took my mother and my sister and I out of Cuba because he wanted me to grow up in a system where I was able to say exactly what I pleased. And I'll be damned if I'm going to dishonor his memory by being intimidated. You believe what you believe, and it's a very liberating experience. And once you do it and you come out of what I call the Cuban closet, you can live with yourself a lot better.

How do Cuban-Americanscome out of this?

Maybe the one healthy thing that happened is that the idea that Cuban-Americans were some sort of privileged class of immigrants. . . . That's no longer the case. A friend called me three days later to ask, "Why have they done this to us? They don't do this to anybody else." And I laughed. I said, "Honey, they do it to Mexicans every day and to Guatemalans every day. Do you know how many times a day in different communities in this country INS breaks down the door and takes old people, children, women, and deports them? It happens every single day."

But it doesn't happen to Cubans.

It just didn't happen to Cubans before. Join the club. Welcome to the club. Welcome to the immigration club. It's very funny that they blame the Democrats for everything, especially a Clinton administration. The only reason that that was able to be carried out was because in 1996, the Republicans in Congress passed an immigration reform law, which makes it possible to not listen to asylum complaints.

Are you scared to have your position made public?

Yes. Fortunately, no bombs have been placed in people's houses for a while now. You are afraid, but I'm more afraid of being intimidated than I am of being afraid. It's not nice to live in fear. It's very liberating not to live in fear.

Are exiles angry that they left Cuba?

My theory is that the older generation must know, whether they admit it or not, that they were the ones who lost the country. Fidel Castro didn't come out of some cave full-grown in his fatigues. He was a product of what had happened before. And I think there's a real sense that that was the generation that lost Cuba. So that's going to be very hard to live with, especially at the end of your life. I understand it. I understand. The ones that I excuse the most are the old people, because they not only lost their country, but they lost everything they had accumulated in life. That's something that you just don't let go of.

Are you scared that Elián will be sent to Fidel's claws?

No, I'm not particularly scared. First of all, children in Cuba are happy. I've seen them. And contrary to all the propaganda, they leave school in the afternoon and go home to their parents. They don't go to re-education centers where they're brainwashed into believing that Fidel is a good thing and communism is a good thing.

More pointedly for Elián, we have managed to make sure that we make a hero out of Elián in Cuba. And this child is going to want for nothing. This child will have a very happy life. He will go to the best schools, he'll have a happy childhood, he'll get to pick whatever he wants to be. And if there's any need whatsoever, Uncle Fidel will make sure that he gets it. There is no way this child is going to be deprived when he goes back to Cuba. And Juan Miguel is going to have a lot better life too, I bet you.

Do you worry about him being spoiled?

I do. I do. But I don't think that's going to happen. I think that once he gets back into his own school, he's not going to be allowed to break the rules. No child is allowed to break the rules in school, anywhere.

home · analyses · interviews · timeline · discussion
video excerpt · links · readings · synopsis
tapes & transcripts · press · credits
frontline · wgbh · pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
top photo © afp/corbis