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Obsession with Elian sparks renewed anti-Castro sentiment

Elian! Elian! Elian! Why is everyone fixated over the Elian Gonzalez story? We all know why hardened anti-Castro activists are obsessed with the boy's custody battle — Elian Gonzalez could not have come at a better time for them.

Despite their success in securing passage of the Helms-Burton Bill in the mid-1990s, anti-Castro forces were beginning to lose their influence over American foreign policy. Jorge Mas Canosa — the most powerful advocate for Cuban exiles — had died, and there was no one to fill the leadership vacuum in Washington. More troubling, second-generation Cuban Americans had begun to focus their attention on domestic affairs.


By the fall of 1999, relations between Cuba and the United States had finally begun to warm up. The Pope went to Cuba and renewed his calls for an end to the U.S. trade embargo, the "Buena Vista Social Club" sparked a renewed interest in Cuban music and culture and President Clinton had begun to allow chartered flights between Cuba and the United States. Emigres intent on maintaining a Cold War between the United States and Cuba had good reason to worry about becoming politically extinct. Soon, their prayers were answered in the form of Elian Gonzalez, the lone survivor of a refugee boat-wreck, the miracle boy who would rally the second-generation and restore the anti-Castro tilt in U.S. foreign policy.

While the Cuban-American fixation over Elian Gonzalez is understandable, what is less clear is the national media's obsession with the boy's custody battle. Some may argue that the American fascination with Elian springs from the public's general obsession with sensational news and dysfunctional families. Who needs to watch Jerry Springer when we can witness real-life drama such as elderly Cubans forming human shields, Al Gore jumping on yet another political bandwagon and the mayor of Miami threatening juridical secession from the federal government?

Others may blame the saturated media coverage of Elian on the early resolution of the national presidential primaries. After Super Tuesday, the presidential primaries were over, leaving us several months away from national conventions and the blitz of fall campaign coverage. Still others may claim that the Elian phenomenon is part of the general American obsession with all things Latino, ranging from the Taco Bell Chihuahua to Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Santana. Perhaps we are just fascinated with the way the name sounds: élián (or as Bush used to say it, "alien").

While all of these explanations are plausible, none seems to explain why public fascination in the Elian custody battle has continued. Interest in other developments have fallen in and out of favor — McCain and Bradley, Ricky Martin and the Backstreet Boys, the Nasdaq and the Dow — but public interest in the Elian case remains strong.

Elian Gonzalez remains prominent in the minds of Americans because his case invokes conflicting impulses about which we feel passionate. On the one hand, conservatives retain a deep disdain for communism and Fidel Castro. To them, the Cold War is not completely over until communism is wiped off the face of the Earth. On the other hand, conservatives have an equally strong impulse to limit immigration and to preserve the sacred bond between parent and child (even if the "child" is an unborn fetus).

Liberals face similar, conflicting impulses over the international custody battle. They may argue that Elian's relatives in Miami are a menace to the boy's psychological development, indoctrinating him into American consumerism and a hatred for Cuba. At the same time, they sense the tragic fact that if Elian has been taught to fear his father and returns to Cuba, he will only face a new round of brainwashing by the Castro regime. Finally, political moderates may applaud the self-sacrificing behavior of elderly Cuban immigrants ready to give their lives to save Elian. Even they, however, must sense the danger in actions that violate federal law and run roughshod over the judicial process.


These conflicting impulses may account for why many Americans were initially undecided on whether Elian should be returned to his father in Cuba. They also help explain why public opinion on the boy's return to Cuba was evenly divided across the political spectrum.

However, most of us cannot hold on to deep-seated, conflicting impulses for long. We have to choose sides, if only to take a break and move on to other issues. And public opinion seems to reflect that shift. Fewer and fewer Americans are undecided on the Elian case.

Many of them are increasingly willing to return the boy to Cuba so that they can pay attention to other important concerns such as the NBA playoffs, the 2000 elections and the financial meltdown on Wall Street. S. Karthick Ramakrishnan is a politics and Office of Population Research graduate student from Holden, Mass. He can be reached at

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