Super Tuesday was the main concern among political folk and pundits this week, pushing most other news to the back burner. Now that that’s behind us and the two frontrunners are running hard, the Elian Gonzalez story is resurfacing. He’s the 6-year-old Cuban boy who has become a pawn in U.S.-Cuban relations.
This columnist was in Cuba last week, and spoke to Ricardo Alarcon, President of the National Assembly. The interview took place in “a protocol house” or a “safe house.” He talked about their mid-term elections in April. But there, “the Members of the General Assembly continue doing their regular work — they are not professional parliamentarians.” Alarcon is the exception; he is thought by many to be Fidel Castro’s successor. But when asked about his future, the savvy political leader quipped, “I’m younger, but Fidel is healthier.”
Alarcon on tourism: “There’s one Havana for tourists with dollars and one for Cubans with pesos.” Today more Cubans have access to dollars as a result of the expansion of the tourism industry. “We work toward the elimination of the double circulation of money,” says Alarcon. “We work toward just one currency — the peso.”
“I know people in the U.S. who would like to have a different Cuba and I can say the same for Cubans who would like to have a different U.S.,” said Alarcon, who added: “There is absolutely nothing Cuba should do to have normal relations with the U.S.” “We are prepared to have normalization of relations with the U.S. only with full equality of rights on both sides.”
On Fidel Castro: “Fidel Castro has some authority but he cannot push a button and we have a nuclear war. That is a problem for you — for Americans.”
I witnessed carefully orchestrated near-daily demonstrations in front of the American Interest Section in Havana for Elian’s return to his father in Cuba. Youngsters were bussed from schools and workers shuttled from factories to participate. Alarcon said: “Those who rescued the little boy were not kidnappers. They saved him. But those who retain him in Miami commit the crime of kidnaping.” He compared it to a father taking his kid across the Florida border to Georgia. Alarcon said that Elian’s father did not go to Miami with his grandmothers because he was afraid of a subpoena from Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN). “Going to pick him up could have been an option if there had not been a kidnaping,” said Alarcon, who believes that the U.S. is under obligation to pick the boy up and give him to the Cuban consulate.
I visited Cardenas, Elian’s hometown. It is a quiet, provincial town in western Cuba, few cars except a handful of Dodges and Chryslers circa 1950. Bicycles and horse drawn carriages are the means of transportation. Black smoke from the Arrechabala rum factory clouds the sky like an omen from behind Elian’s father’s row house. The old house has a fresh coat of blue paint so it stands out from others on the block. The rest of the street is in shambles. Small fish swim in the drain by the curb. A sign on his Dad’s house reads when translated: “You will return to the breast of your family of your people of your home.” And a sign at his school: “Bring Elian back to his desk.” Next door neighbor Carlos Navarro says, “It’s sad. Hopefully he’ll be returned right away.”
After climbing stairs to a second floor walk-up above a pharmacy with empty shelves, Rolando Betancourt, 74, greeted me at the door with a hug. He clutched his heart when asked why he wants Elian returned. He was a gentle man, yet frightened to talk. “This is an international problem.” He fears Elian will not be returned. The government will not let him talk.
A co-worker at a restaurant where Elian’s father was a waiter (he has not been back to work since this incident has dominated headlines) says “he’s mad as an animal at the American government.” He also fears Elian will not be returned.