The Coercion of Elián's Father

The Coercion of Elián's Father

The Coercion of Elián's Father

How you look at things.
April 12 2000 3:00 AM

The Coercion of Elián's Father

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Juan Miguel González says he wants to take his son Elián back to Cuba. But is this really what Mr. González wants, or is it only what the Cuban government has told him to say? Many Americans believe he isn't free to say what he thinks. They believe the Cuban government is holding members of his family hostage back home, forcing him to come to the United States and demand Elián's return.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Such skepticism about whether people who live under totalitarian regimes can speak candidly for themselves protects their true wishes from misrepresentation—up to a point. Beyond that point, however, our unwillingness to take their words seriously betrays their autonomy. If nothing González does can convince you that he is freely choosing to take Elián back to Cuba—if you refuse, despite the increasing clarity and independence of his statements, to believe that González is speaking for himself—then you risk denying, in the name of freedom, freedom itself.

Many of the conditions in which this controversy began inspired reasonable doubt about González's autonomy. Critics pointed out that he was in Cuba, where President Fidel Castro could easily punish him for dissent. Then they observed that if González came to the United States without his wife and baby, he might not feel free to contradict the Cuban government because his family in Cuba might be punished by Castro. Then they added that even in the United States, González couldn't express his true wishes in the presence of Cuban officials. Each of these troublesome conditions has been eliminated, yet skepticism persists. It is the American advocates of "freedom," not the Cuban government, who have escalated their demands and refused to accept González's pleas.

Last week at the U.S. Justice Department, González and his wife met for an hour with Attorney General Janet Reno, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and González's attorney, Greg Craig. No Cuban officials were present. By all accounts, González told the U.S. officials emphatically that he wanted to take his son back to Cuba. According to Reno, "He wasn't being watched by his government. He said that he understood that people felt that he should stay here, and he said, 'I want the exact opposite.' " According to Holder, "He said that, 'Some people want to think that I want to come to the United States.' He goes, 'That is totally the opposite. What I want to do is get my boy and return to Cuba.' He's very, very clear about that. … He seems to me to be very sincere in his desire to get back to Cuba and to take his boy with him. He had an opportunity there to say to us that he wanted to stay. … I really do not think that that's what he wants to do. I think he wants to raise his son in a town that is most familiar to him." Holder added, "We have interviewed him twice in Cuba, used a variety of techniques there to try to assess whether or not he really wanted to remain in Cuba."

Have these statements satisfied the skeptics? Not at all. Now that González has come to the United States, has brought his wife and baby, and has walked into a room without Cuban agents and told U.S. officials that he wants to take Elián back to Cuba, the skeptics have come up with new reasons why González can't be believed. To wit:

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1. Why did it take him so long? "Even as Mr. González demanded his son's speedy return, he adamantly rejected the quickest way to achieve it—namely, going to the United States himself—until last week when the regime itself proposed that course," writes National Review editor at large John O'Sullivan in the New York Times. Never mind that González has satisfied this demand. The point is that he took too long to do so.

2. Castro is holding the rest of his family hostage. Now that González's immediate family is in the United States, skeptics say he still can't speak freely because the rest of his family remains in Cuba. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., asks, "Can you imagine the scene in Havana as the father was getting ready to leave, dressed in the new suit that was just given to him by Fidel Castro, and Fidel said to him, you know, 'You're getting ready to go to the United States. Juan, we want you to speak freely. But don't forget that your mother is still in Cuba. Don't forget that other family members are still in Cuba. Juan, speak freely.' I mean, give me a break."

3. He's surrounded by Cuban agents. Miami City Mayor Joe Carollo dismisses the fact that Cuban officials didn't attend González's meeting with Reno. "Who brought Juan Miguel to her? Who took him back after he met with her? Who waited for him outside? Who is he staying with?" asks Carollo. "It was Castro's security personnel that was handling Juan Miguel. … The home that he's staying in is the home of the head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. … Juan Miguel is not truly free to express himself." Never mind that the Cuban government has waived its sovereignty over the diplomat's house in which González is staying. "Will the photographs of Fidel Castro have disappeared from the walls?" asks O'Sullivan. "Mr. González is being kept, as far as practicable, in an official Cuban atmosphere."

4. He's not free to go to Miami or to speak with his relatives who are hosting Elián there. The Miami relatives have tried to talk to Juan Miguel González but have been rebuffed. Skeptics assume that this means González isn't being "allowed" to speak to them. "He refuses, again in line with Mr. Castro's views, to go to Miami," says O'Sullivan, implying that Castro made the decision. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., says González hasn't been permitted "to meet with [the Miami relatives] because he's under the control of the Castro regime." At no point do these critics entertain the possibility that González doesn't want to speak to the Miami relatives because he's furious that they're refusing to give back his son, or that he doesn't want to go to Miami because he's afraid of violence from Cuban-Americans who refuse to let Elián go.

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5. Even if he met with the Miami relatives, he couldn't speak freely. This covers the skeptics in case González tells his relatives face-to-face that he wants to take Elián back to Cuba. "I don't think Juan Miguel has the ability yet to speak freely and to speak naturally with his relatives," says the Miami relatives' attorney, Linda Osberg-Braun.

6. He hasn't met with skeptical politicians. González has met with members of Congress who sympathize with his decision but has refused to meet with others who don't. From this, the rejected politicians infer that he hasn't been "allowed" to see them. "The three Cuban-American members of Congress, we've asked to meet with Juan Miguel, alone, to have a parent-to-parent conversation. He's not allowed to meet with us," complains Diaz-Balart.

7. U.S. officials are Cuban agents. "President Clinton's personal emissary was sent to meet with Castro to give more than enough impression to Elián's father that every minute detail of the trip is under the control of the Castro regime in coordination with the Clinton administration," says Diaz-Balart. "The farce they're projecting … is that Juan Miguel is a free man since he's on free soil." O'Sullivan adds: "González is being kept … in an official Cuban atmosphere. Nor are the Americans he deals with likely to dispel this atmosphere. Attorney General Janet Reno and the administration have firmly committed themselves to Elián's return. … González's lawyer, Gregory Craig, also defended President Clinton during his impeachment." First González couldn't speak freely because he was in Cuba. Now he can't speak freely because he's in America.

8. Religious intermediaries are Cuban agents. In case González affirms to someone other than a U.S. official—most plausibly a cleric—that he wants to take his son back to Cuba, the skeptics can dismiss that, too, as implicit coercion. "The Protestant church intermediaries are broadly sympathetic to the Castro regime," says O'Sullivan. "All of them would be gravely embarrassed if Mr. González were to change his mind. How likely would he be, then, to open a nervous or uncertain heart to them?"

9. Don't believe him until Reno cross-examines him. The skeptics care so much about González's true wishes that they refuse to take his words in the Washington meeting at face value. Reno "has an obligation to make sure that what she's hearing from the father is his free will spoken in a free way. The idea that she's done that at this stage seems to me to be all but laughable," says Fox News' Brit Hume. Osberg-Braun adds, "Our judicial system is all about cross-examination, opening the evidence so Juan Miguel's words can be challenged—not just unilaterally stated as Castro writes them for him."

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10. Reno isn't competent to evaluate his credibility. "I don't think that she, sitting in the room with Juan Miguel González, has the wit about her to make a sensible judgment. She seems blind to the peculiarities of his behavior," says Hume. "She either made up her mind or had it made up for her by the White House early on in this that we were going to ship this boy back to Cuba."

11. His lips say no, but his car and clothes say yes. "Conduct speaks louder than words," says Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, another lawyer for the Miami relatives. González "was even trying to sell his car for a while to buy a boat or find his way here. … This is a man who needs to be evaluated himself." Sen. Mack, Mayor Carollo, and other politicians say González can't be believed because he has been wearing new clothes "given to him by Fidel Castro."

12. He's doing what Castro wants. Even if every visible string between González and Castro is severed, the skeptics are prepared to infer manipulation from the sheer coincidence between what Castro wants and what González does. O'Sullivan notes suspiciously that González came to the United States "when the regime itself proposed that course" but declined to go to Miami, "again in line with Mr. Castro's views."

13. He can't prove he's not Castro's puppet. Suppose González says or does something that appears contrary to Castro's interests. Even then, the skeptics are prepared to doubt González's authenticity, simply because Castro controls Cuba. "We cannot know what [González's] feelings are," says O'Sullivan. "He is simply not in a position to refuse to cooperate with Fidel Castro's campaign for Elián's return."

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14. He can't authentically assert a parental right, because Cubans have no parental rights. "Juan Miguel does not own his own words," says Osberg-Braun. "Elián is the property of the Cuban government. That's according to their own statements and their own laws. Juan Miguel does not have any rights over his son."

15. Polls show that Americans don't believe him. "The polls show that although most people do think [Elián] belongs with his father, the majority also believe that we haven't yet heard, freely and without restraint, from the father about where he wants to live with his son," says Fox News commentator Mara Liasson. "It is disturbing." Don't accept González's statements that he wants to return his son to Cuba, and don't accept Reno's judgment that González is saying what he really thinks. But do accept the judgment of a random sample of Americans that González's statements can't be believed.

The skeptics' bottomless series of demands has turned the debate between freedom and totalitarianism upside down. In a free country, a person's expressed views are supposed to be taken seriously, not endlessly second-guessed and dismissed. González "met for more than one hour" with U.S. officials, observed Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón on Meet the Press. "He was not with any Cuban official. He was alone with his wife and his six-month-old boy. … And he freely decided what he wants to do. Why don't you respect that?"

Shame on Castro's right-hand man for lecturing us about respecting free decisions. And shame on us for deserving it.