Hero’s welcome will not erase boy’s memories of U.S.

  • San Jose Mercury News
  • |
  • April 16, 2000

by Karen Feld

Hero’s welcome will not erase boy’s memories of U.S. Cuba awaits Elián’s return


Children play outside Elian's school in Cardenas

If the United States sends 6-year-old Elián González back to Cuba, he is sure to receive a hero’s welcome. The boy has become an icon in Fidel Castro’s detente with the United States; Cuban children wear T-shirts bearing his likeness.

But what kind of life would he enjoy in Cuba?

I visited Elián’s hometown of Cárdenas in late February, after eluding my Communist Party guides and interpreters. For $60 and a bottle of rum, I obtained a Cuban press pass; for $100, I hired a driver.

Cárdenas is a town frozen in time. About 75,000 people live there, and little has changed in the past half-century. Its industries are sugar mills, oil refineries, a small shipyard and a rum factory.

The town is about 10 miles from Varadero, a beach resort where Cubans are prohibited unless they work in the tourism industry. When I arrived, it was early enough in the Elián saga that many people in Cárdenas had never seen an American.

We parked around the corner from Elián’s father’s house, amid bicycles, horse-drawn carriages and an occasional ’50s model Dodge or Chrysler. Children played with homemade toys in the narrow street. Neighbors congregated for afternoon chitchat and domino games. Small fish swam in the drain in front of the houses. Thick black smoke from the Arrechabala rum factory clouded the sky behind the row house at 168 Cosio that Juan Miguel González calls home.

Elián’s home in Cuba

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.”

Images of Cardenas, where Elian has become a hero.

Until recently, González was earning about $8 a month in salary and a few dollars a week in tips as a waiter at El Retiro, a restaurant for tourists, mostly Europeans, in Varadero. But since Elián’s rescue, the Cuban government has “protected” González and not let him go back to work.

Instead, he has spent time with Fidel Castro and been transported to Havana for demonstrations. But he has stopped by to see his former co-workers. Luis Ernesto Ramois, 33, who worked as a waiter with González, told me, “I don’t know any Americans. You’re the first.”

Carlos Navarro, an engaging 74-year-old man with white hair and mustache, lives next door to González in the house that was the first headquarters of Radio Cuba.

“Elián slept here all the time,” the old communist said. “The father, he’s sad, every day.”

But other neighbors, clearly fearful of punishment if they talked openly, called Navarro’s statement “the party line” and said Elián was seldom there.

Ricardo Fernández, 30, of Cárdenas said he is a longtime friend of González’s. “He’s mad as an animal at the American government,” he said. Fernández makes his living selling T-shirts to tourists in Varadero; I bought one of his bestsellers, with Elián’s face on it.

In Cárdenas, as in other towns, there is a Communist Party office in every neighborhood, a party official on every block. As a result, the people are warm and engaging, but very cautious. “There are no wrong questions, only wrong answers,” a 19-year-old woman told me.

Most 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, Elián’s maternal grandparents, live about a mile away. The exterior of their one-room, second-floor apartment also has a fresh coat of paint. Its steep stairs, though, are sorely in need of repair.

I arrived a stranger, without pre-arrangement, but Elián’s young cousin greeted me with a hug and kiss. So did Rolando Benacourt, Elián’s grandfather.

“I don’t believe he will ever be returned,” said Benacourt, 74. “This is an international problem.”

I gave Elián’s cousin a plastic ballpoint pen, and he was thrilled. Children and adults alike in Cuba don’t hesitate to ask you for dollars, aspirin, soap (rations provide only one cake a month), makeup, pens and notebooks.

The Benacourts live at Calle 12 No. 60, above the town’s only pharmacy. A sign offers free birth control; little else is on the shelves. All Cubans are entitled to free health care, but in Cárdenas the only hospital is a former Soviet decompression chamber, circa 1981. A list of doctors on call is posted on the door. A sign says surgical patients must supply their own sheets.

Calle 12 is sometimes busy because of the outdoor market across the street. There, an apple costs $1; bargaining is customary. Much of the produce is similarly out of reach for many Cubans, except those who make U.S. dollars in the tourism industry.

‘It’s hopeless here’

Lillian, a woman in her 50s who asked that her last name not be used, sells handicrafts at the market. She rents her space for 60 pesos, or $3, a day. “I’m so afraid for this generation,” she said. “It’s hopeless here.”

Elián’s school is nearby, an unpretentious pink building. Two pictures adorn the entrance, one on each side: Elián González and Fidel Castro.

Inside, a corridor leads to a basketball court and to signs about Elián. One reads, “Bring Elián back a su patria” (to his fatherland). And another, “Liberen a Elián.” A bulletin board with “Mi Amigo Elián” in large letters hangs at the entrance to the restroom. Below are notes scribbled in pencil and crayon from his classmates.

Nine hundred students attend the school. In Cuba, education is free, but access to books and the Internet is restricted. I asked a chemistry teacher about the student-teacher ratio. He said he was not allowed to give me such information.

Across the street from the school is a brothel. Three women invited me in and wrote down their names and address in case I had any male friends who wanted to stop by. (They have no phone.) I gave them a couple of lipsticks, and they talked freely. But one told me, “We are not free to praise capitalism, prostitution or drug use.”

Downtown Cárdenas is a couple blocks long. Its monuments are a two-story cast-iron market hall and the Plaza Molocoff. A movie theater provides the only entertainment in town. A ticket costs one peso (about 5 cents).

The state controls most levels of daily life in Cuba: where people live, what they study, what careers they can choose and where they work. Food is mostly beans and rice, with pork or chicken twice a month. Fish is reserved for tourists. Once children turn 6, like Elián, they are no longer eligible to receive rations of milk.

At school Elián would be taught the communist catechism, which is required by the Cuban Constitution. At age 10, he’ll be sent to a work camp to study communist doctrine and work in a government industry such as the sugar fields.

If Elián goes home, it is likely that he will not be allowed to tell his friends all about his stay in the United States, or his trip to Disney World. Surely the Castro regime will not allow him to say that life in the United States was better than life in Cuba — even if the eyes of a 6-year-old can discern the difference.

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