I grew up in a Cuban immigrant household that was filled with people that were very much against the revolution and Castro. Over the years, I was told countless stories of the atrocities that were being committed on the Caribbean island and why my family left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. I was born in 1989 in New Jersey, making me a first-generation Cuban-American. Before you ask, yes. My parents met in Miami and we eventually moved back, but not for long.
By 1999, my family moved back to Miami then up to a small, rural town in the Florida panhandle, just a 15-minute drive from the Alabama state line. That was also the same year that 5-year-old Elián González was found floating in an inner tube near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents and grandparents to speak openly about the Cuban nationals that were being found in the water, but for a child this young to be found alone was something different. I could tell by how they addressed the matter.
Partly because of my age and partly because of our geographic separation from Miami, I was not aware of what was going on. I only knew one thing: we did not want Elián sent back to his father in Cuba. In fact, my family thought Juan González, Elián’s father, was a bad father for wishing for his child to be returned to Cuba. The argument was always backed up with emotion as his mother, Elizabeth Brotons, literally gave her life so her son could be free. This is something a lot of Cuban parents were willing to risk to save their children from a growing regime set on oppressing the Cuban people.
Fast forward to 2017. I am a 28-year-old journalist living in Los Angeles and working for the Latino media company mitú. Until moving to L.A., I wasn’t that in tune with the Latino community at large. I knew about Cuban culture but I was never fully immersed in it unless on vacation to see my family. My parents always tried to make sure that my brother and I learned Cuban culture as much as possible, but we were living in a region affectionately known as “the Redneck Riviera.” Sure, I spoke Spanish with mis abuelos and I would always curl up on the couch with my abuela to watch the evening novelas. However, Cuban culture started and stopped in my home. As soon as I left those doors, I was in white, cowboy country. Where I grew up was a 9-hour drive from Miami. We only made trips south to visit family for the holidays. Even now, I still thought about Elián and the case that took an emotional toll on my family, especially my grandparents.
CNN recently aired the documentary “Elián” and I admit that I was very interested to learn more about the boy whose image has been burned into my memory. I remember mourning with my family when the federal government raided his family’s home in Miami. How could they take this boy and send him back to Cuba? I have long held the belief that the U.S. was wrong in sending Elián back to Cuba. I still believe he should have been given a chance to stay in the U.S., but after watching the documentary, I cannot justify keeping him away from his father.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) memorandum in Elián’s case, Juan had every right to claim his child under the Constitution of Cuba Article 37. That passage of the Cuban constitution, according to the United Nations Information Centres, states that being born out of wedlock does not diminish or negate the rights of the child and the parent. “The state guarantees, through adequate legal mean, the determination and recognition of paternity,” reads the Cuban constitution. Elián was born out of wedlock in 1993 but his father still had final say.
INS further states that it is customary for them to assess relationships based on the law of the country of origin when it comes to immigration matters. This means that the U.S. government had to uphold Cuban law, using it to decide who had legal authority to make immigration decisions for Elián. By that law, his great-uncle, Lazaro González, did not have that right.
It was on Jan. 7, 1959, that the U.S. government officially recognized the Castro-led Cuban government. While we didn’t have diplomatic ties with the Cuban government, we still recognized them as a country and, in turn, we recognized their laws. From a purely legal standpoint, it seems that government officials had their hands tied in terms of what to do with the Cuban boy that was the center of an international case.
It is not new information to hear that Cuba had a strong hand in keeping their dissenters quiet. In fact, many of the stories I have heard from Cuban exiles are filled with heartbreaking examples of family members being disappeared or killed because they dissented. We may never know whether or not Juan wanted to bring Elián back or if he was a pawn for the Cuban government to shore up support for the government. Juan might have wanted Elián to be free in the U.S., but the Castro regime was against it. Or Juan could really have believed that Elián should have been sent back. We’ll never know the truth about that.
I know that this opinion is going to be met with some anger from the Cuban-American community. After all, I, like many Cuban-Americans, want a free and just Cuba. That is something we do not have. Sending a child back to that country seems like an atrocious decision, and, for many reasons, it is. Yet, that does not negate the law nor Juan’s rights to raise his child as he sees fit. As I write this, I am scared of what my own family will think about it. However, it is what I believe. I do not agree with how the situation was handled with federal agents raiding the home and pointing a gun at Elián as he hid in a closet. That was wrong on many levels.
I still think it was wrong to send Elián back to Cuba. Sending him back deprived him of a life of freedom and opportunity that the U.S. is supposed to offer all people. Yet, I can’t justify my feelings other than strictly emotional. Who are we to tell a parent, who by all accounts was a good father, that they had no rights to their child?
We are a nation that values the rights of individuals and of parents. Parents make the decisions for their children, from where they live and go to school, to what doctors they visit and what medical procedures they will perform. That’s what made Elián’s case so difficult. On one hand, his mother died trying to get him out of Cuba. On the other hand, his living father was asking for him to be returned to raise him as he saw fit. There’s no justifiable excuse for depriving a parent of their natural right to raise their child. It’s heartbreaking to say, but that’s what I believe.