Hero’s welcome awaits Elian, as do poverty and degradation

  • The Orlando Sentinel
  • |
  • April 09, 2000

by Karen Feld

CARDENAS, Cuba – If the United States sends Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba with his father, he will receive a hero’s welcome in this city where he will live.Elian, 6, has become an icon in Cuba, and almost every child there knows his name. Children even wear T-shirts bearing his likeness.

But to what kind of life will Elian return?

It’s a sure thing that his daily life in Cardenas will be much different from what it has been since he arrived in Miami.

He has been the focus of an international tug-of-war since his mother and 10 other Cubans drowned in November when their boat sank during an attempt to reach the United States. Elian was rescued from an inner tube and placed into the care of relatives in Miami.

During a recent visit to Cuba, I visited Elian’s hometown of Cardenas. After eluding my government handlers, I obtained a Cuban press pass ($60 and a bottle of rum) and, for $100, hired a driver for the two-hour ride from Havana to Cardenas, which has about 75,000 residents and is frozen in time.

Elian's hometown.Little appears to have changed there in the past half century. It is almost as though time stopped with the 1958 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Buildings remain marked by bombs from that era. There are few telephones or televisions in the tiny homes, and the computer age definitely has not arrived here yet.

But Poveiano Felipe, 60, who drives a taxi, told me that in one way things are very different – the aspirations of the young for the fruits of capitalism.

“You can’t talk socialism with the youth today. They don’t want to hear that. Everybody goes to school. There are very good social laws, but the economy is the problem. The youth want changes. They want another system. When people have money, they get rich and they think differently. Right now the mentality is changing because of tourism,” he said.

Cardenas is about 12 miles from Varadero, a beach resort where Cubans are prohibited unless they work in the tourism industry.

It is a city of sugar mills, a small shipyard, a rum factory and oil refineries. To avoid attracting attention, I asked my driver to park around the corner from Elian’s father’s house.

There were bicycles, a few horse-drawn carriages and an occasional ’50s model Dodge or Chrysler on the streets. Thick, black smoke from the Arrechabala rum factory clouded the sky behind the row house that Elian’s father, Juan Gonzalez, calls home.

Children rode bicycles and played with homemade toys in the narrow street in front of their homes. Neighbors congregated for afternoon chit-chat and domino games. Small fish swam in the drain in front of the houses. The rest of the tiny structures on the street were in shambles, but the government recently had the exterior of Juan’s house painted two shades of turquoise.

A sign on the freshly painted, dark-brown door read: “You will return to the breast of your family, of your people, of your homeland.”

Juan Gonzalez was earning about $8 a month in salary and a few dollars a week in tips as a waiter at El Retiro, a tourist restaurant with a predominantly European clientele. But since Elian’s rescue, the Cuban government has “protected” Juan and not let him go back to work.

He has spent time with Fidel Castro and has been transported to Havana for demonstrations. But he has stopped by to see his former colleagues and friends, who – like many people here – never have seen an American.

Luis Ernesto Ramois, 33, who said he and Juan both worked as waiters there, told me: “I don’t know any Americans. You’re the first. It’s not common to meet Americans here.” Manuel Rodriquez, 57, the chef at the restaurant, said Juan had worked there as a waiter for about 10 years, and had cried about his son’s fate during a recent conversation.

The home of Juan Gonzalez, Elian's father.

Carlos Navarro, 74, an engaging man with white hair and mustache, lives next door to Elian’s father in the house that was the first headquarters of Radio Cuba.

“It’s sad,” he said when I asked him about Elian. “Elian slept here all the time,” he volunteered. “The father, he’s sad, every day, very much.”

Other neighbors, clearly fearful of punishment by the government if they talked openly – much less to an American journalist – called Navarro’s statement “the party line” and “untrue,” and said that Elian was seldom there.

Ricardo Fernandez, 30, of Cardenas, a longtime friend of Juan’s, makes his living selling T-shirts to tourists. Those with Elian’s likeness are popular. He told me: “He’s (Juan) mad as an animal at the American government.”

The people are warm and engaging but very cautious. One 19-year-old woman, who would not agree to be identified for fear of government punishment, told me: “There are no wrong questions, only wrong answers.”

The neighborhood homes are one or two rooms. A few of the neighbors invited me in. When I asked to use the bathroom, my hostess pulled a curtain aside and pointed to a hole in the concrete floor.

The Benacourts, Elian’s maternal grandparents, live about a mile away from his father. The exterior of their second-floor walk-up apartment also has a fresh coat of paint. But the steep stairs leading to the one-room apartment are sorely in need of repair. Elian’s cousin greeted me with a hug and kiss, as did Rolando Benacourt, Elian’s grandfather. Benacourt, a white-haired man of 74, had tears in his eyes when he spoke of Elian. He clutched his hand to his heart.

“I don’t believe he will ever be returned,” he said.

He appeared frightened to talk but was warm and friendly.

“This is an international problem,” he said.

The Benacourts live at Calle 12 No. 60, above the town’s only pharmacy.

Although a sign offers free birth-control pills there, there’s little else on the shelves. All Cubans are entitled to free health care, but in Cardenas the only hospital is a former Soviet decompression chamber, circa 1981. A list of doctors on call is posted on the door. Surgical patients must supply their own sheets.

The street where the Benacourts live is somewhat busier than that of the home of Juan Gonzalez. An outdoor market is located across the street, but most of the residents – except those who make U.S. dollars in the tourist industry – can’t afford to buy the produce and other goods, although bargaining is customary. An apple costs $1. Kids and adults alike don’t hesitate to ask you for dollars, aspirin, soap (rations only provide one cake a month), makeup, pens and notebooks. I gave Elian’s cousin a plastic ballpoint pen, and he was thrilled.

Lillian, who pleaded fearfully that her last name not be used, is a 50-something woman who rents space at the open-air market for 60 pesos, or $3 a day, to sell her handicrafts to tourists.

“I’m so afraid for this generation,” she said. “It’s hopeless here.”

Elian’s school is nearby, and it is an unpretentious pink building. Two pictures adorn the entrance, one on each side: Elian Gonzalez and Fidel Castro. The entrance corridor leads to a basketball court and to more references to Elian in the form of signs.

The English translations of the signs there say, “Bring Elian Back To His Father” and “Free Elian.” A bulletin board with “Mi Amigo Elian” in large letters hangs at the entrance to the restroom. Below are his classmates’ pictures and posted notes scribbled in pencil and crayon to Elian. Nine hundred students attend the school (education is free, but access to books and the Internet is very restricted).

I asked a chemistry teacher about the student-teacher ratio. He said he was not permitted to give me such information.

Across the street from the school is a brothel. Prostitution is a way of life there. Three young women invited me in and wrote down their names and address in case I had any male friends who wanted to stop by. They don’t have a phone. One young woman told me, “We are not free to praise capitalism, prostitution or drug use.”

A ride through the two to three blocks of downtown Cardenas revealed Plaza Molocoff, a two-story, cast-iron market hall, and one movie theater – the only entertainment in town. Admittance is one peso (about five cents).

Currently, the state controls most levels of daily life – including where you live, what you will study at school, what career you will choose and where you work. Food is limited – mostly beans and rice, with pork or chicken twice a month, and no fish (that’s reserved for tourists). Now that Elian is 6, he no longer will be eligible to receive milk, which is rationed. At school, in exchange for his free education, Elian will have to work in the sugar fields or some other government-run summer program of work and study.

All-in-all, daily life in Cardenas will be very different from what Elian has known during his time in the United States.

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