Politics of puppies and puppets

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2000

What tore it for me was the puppy.

There is Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old who watched his mother die, who saw nine other adults drown, who spent two days hanging onto a raft in the sea, and what happens when he gets ashore?

A trip to Disney World, a truckload of toys, a ticket to the circus, television cameras. But nothing was worse than the congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, bearing a black Labrador puppy.

Here, Elian, your mom's dead, your dad's 90 miles away, your grandparents' can't see you...have a puppy.

When Elian Gonzalez first hit the news, I described this as a custody fight between two countries. Well, not anymore. Now it's a political fight with two governments on the same side and the Cuban-American community, with all of its clamor and clout, on the other.

With a rare display of good sense, the Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled that the boy belonged with his father. After a local judge disagreed, Attorney General Janet Reno reaffirmed the INS ruling.

But no one wants to see immigration agents taking a 6-year-old away on the evening news. So the deadline is indefinitely postponed. We still have a puppet to politics - Who taught Elian to raise his fingers in the V for victory sign? - and a puppy.

Not all the politicking is in Little Havana. Ninety miles away, the Cubans held a ``March of the Combatant Mothers,'' a name that sounds like something out of a 1930s propaganda film.

Castro, on his last legs, is dancing a jig over this story. The old leader, whose own son Fidelito was once caught in an international custody battle, has sent his foreign minister on a 10-day sympathy tour of Europe. Talk about propaganda victories. We gave him this one; because he's right.

On ``Meet the Press,'' John McCain seemed to be enjoying the last nip of Cold War rhetoric. What if the mother had dropped her son over the Berlin Wall before she'd been shot escaping, he asked. Would we still send him back?

Indeed, some share frozen worldview of Havana as Berlin. But in the post-Cold War thaw, it's not clear that one dictatorship is worse than another. Nor is it clear these days whether Cuban refugees come here for political freedom or for economic opportunity.

We have a unique Cuban immigration policy that encourages daredevil runs to dry land. If indeed, as some of Elian's supporters have said, he would go back to a country without milk or food, how much of that poverty is due to our embargo? And if poverty is the issue, should we separate every poor child from his family, here or abroad?

But I digress from the puppet and the puppy.

Next week, we are told, Congress will be asked to grant this boy citizenship. If, in fact, it merely means that Elian can return as an adult, fine. But if it's a ploy, a means to delay, then indeed Ricardo Alarcon, the head of Cuba's National Assembly, was right in calling this a ``kidnapping.''

The point is to focus on this child. Does anyone who sees the footage and the photo-ops not wonder what is happening to this boy at night? When, between trips to the circus and to Disney world, he misses his mother, who comes and comforts him?

Perhaps the father can't go to Miami. Juan Miguel Gonzalez told ``Nightline,'' ``I would feel like breaking the neck of all those SOBs.'' Driven to rage, he is now criticized for anger. He's even, it appears, been threatened with a subpoena if he comes here.

But the grandmothers have volunteered to come. Well, I say, bring them on. Let them enter the house in Miami, privately, quietly. Shut the door. Turn off the camera.

Maybe the paternal grandmother can talk sense into the man in whose house Elian resides. That man is, after all, her brother. Maybe the maternal grandmother can plead the case for being with the only child of her dead only child. Let them talk, argue, talk as family.

Not even the most cynical of politicians would subpoena a grandmother. Not even the most ardent Castro-hater would be offended if these women carried out the INS order.

Any way you look at it, a child whisked from the sea to Disney World is facing deep, deep trouble. Let these two take the boy away from the spotlight, to the place where tears and comfort are permitted.

Elian has lost his mother. He needs his father and his grandparents. Not a puppy.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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