Can One Little Boy Make A Difference?

  • Share
  • Read Later
As Elian Gonzalez's grandmas informed us this year, their clan sometimes displays affection by nibbling on each other. So when Elian's grandfather Juan Gonzalez scooped the boy into his arms last week at Havana's Jose Marti Airport, he kissed him and joyfully urged him, "Bite my ear, hard!" Elian shyly buried his head in Juan's neck, then revealed to his Cuban kin why he couldn't chomp on his abuelo's lobe: he had lost his two front baby teeth during the final weeks of his seven-month-long stay in the U.S.

But Fidel Castro is much more concerned with what the world-famous six-year-old acquired in the U.S.--symbolized by the black suede Pokemon chain Elian wore when he arrived from Washington, a capitalist contrast to the Young Communist Pioneer scarves that dozens of his shouting, flag-waving Cuban classmates donned to greet him. In a calculated show of political restraint, Castro didn't come to the airport to hail the pint-size icon. Instead, he broadcast a Cuban animated cartoon character to welcome Elian on national television--Elpidio Valdes, the patriotic, machete-swinging colonel who tells children to eat their vegetables, brush their teeth, and recently exhorted them to march against Elian's imperialist "Miami kidnappers." It was a cuddlier reminder of the dour communique Havana issued earlier in the week, promising that Elian would become a "model child."

The odyssey of Elian supposedly ended when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Miami Cuban exile lobby's bid to win political asylum for him; and the boy and his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who had gone to the U.S. to claim him, were free to go home. Cubans like architect Ernesto Pasalagua, 67, called Elian's return "a great victory, just like the Bay of Pigs." But this custody saga has proved to be more than an extended tit for tat. Just as Elian's young mind will now struggle to reconcile the polarized worlds of Pikachu and Elpidio, he may have forced post-cold war politics to do the same. That's largely because Elian showed many Americans that not everyone in Cuba wears a beard, fatigues and an anti-gringo scowl.

But his elfin face may not be as visible anymore. Elian and his family will spend the next three weeks in a seaside Havana house, and officials plan to keep international media out of Elian's hometown of Cardenas, ostensibly to let Elian get caught up in school so he can enter second grade in September. But critics in the U.S. warn that the quarantine is meant to deprogram Elian. (If so, he'll be used to it: the private school he attended in Miami, owned by a right-wing Cuban-exile leader, was just as dogmatic.) Last week he used the luxurious house as a romper room, giggling at the bald head of his other grandfather Rolando, who had worn a shaggy wig in a video the family had sent to Elian in the U.S., telling the boy that doctors had discovered a miraculous hair tonic.

Meanwhile, has Elian helped deprogram U.S. policy? The U.S. Congress struck a deal to allow food and medicine sales to Cuba last week. However, it is fettered by embargo conditions, such as a ban on U.S. financing of Havana's purchases. Still it marks a sea change on Capitol Hill: before Elian washed ashore, that bill and measures like it were a Beltway laughingstock. Post-Elian, says Angelo Fuster, a Cuban-American business consultant who favors ending the embargo, "the inflated myth of the Cuban exiles' political power has been punctured." The setbacks have started raining down on Miami. A U.S. federal court, for example, recently upheld the Administration's policy of sending back Cuban rafters intercepted at sea.

The question is whether the Elian effect will soften the Castro dictatorship. Not much in the short term. Warning that Washington is still Cuba's bitter foe, Castro scorned the anti-embargo bill as a paltry gesture, and dissidents fear he'll use his Elian victory as a ticket for a summer crackdown. But after Juan Miguel, a Communist Party member, gave "the beautiful and intelligent" Americans an abrazo on the Dulles tarmac, Castro knows the Elian affair let Cubans see that not everyone in the U.S. is a right-wing Miami exile. So much of Castro's power resides in their distrust of los Yanquis. Elian may also have punctured that.