Long Live Elián González

The conventional wisdom debunked.
June 12 2000 11:30 PM

Long Live Elián González

Juan Miguel's choice. 

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According to the United Nations Statistical Division, the average life expectancy of a 6-year-old boy living in the United States is 66.5 more years (or 72.5 total). Unless he is relocated to Cuba, where the average life expectancy of a 6-year-old boy is 67.5 more years (73.5 total).

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This little statistic by no means settles the Elián argument. Anyone might sensibly say that 66.5 years of freedom are worth more than 67.5 years under communism. Actuarial equivalence isn't moral equivalence. But when you consider how much Americans are willing to spend—how much you yourself would be willing to spend—for an extra year of life, the fact that staying in the United States would be slightly hazardous to Elián's long-term health ought to give you pause.

But is it true? Isn't the notion that Cuba has a good health-care system an old leftist cliché, long since discredited? Part of the explanation, to be sure, is that Cuba's miserable economy has spared Cubans some of the diseases of affluence, such as those caused by industrial pollution, automobile accidents, rich diets, and so on. And don't go looking for a quick MRI if you're in Havana and feel a brain tumor coming on. But Castro does indeed deserve credit for some effective public health measures, especially near-universal child vaccination. For details, check out the Web site of the Pan American Health Organization, a Washington-based agency funded in part by the U.S. government and not previously identified as a Communist front.

But what about basic liberties such as freedom of speech and association? Who wouldn't risk the distant and uncertain chances of a longer life for his child in order to secure the fruits of freedom? The answer, of course, is a man like Juan Miguel González. Disbelief greeted his initial statements from Cuba that he didn't want to come live in the United States. Opponents of his son's return to Cuba demanded he come and express his opinion in a free country. So he came to Washington and said the same thing in a private meeting with Attorney General Janet Reno. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol was still skeptical, demanding to know why Juan Miguel didn't come to Miami and "tell his side of the story." The expectation seemed to be that a random Cuban deposited in America would spontaneously recite the gospel according to the Wall Street Journal. And if he didn't, that proved he was a Fidel stooge.

Most sane people are now convinced that Elián's father actually prefers to live in a sunny Caribbean beach town surrounded by Scandinavian tourists, Communist busybodies, and loving relatives rather than to move to America for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bicker with strangers about private matters on C-SPAN and CNN. That someone would subordinate even the exercise of civil liberties to living a long time in familiar circumstances—and maximizing the chances of the same for his son—was something that people outside the media-political bubble could understand.

Then, too, one of several perverse effects of our four-decade embargo of Cuba is that Americans have never disliked Fidel Castro as much as he might deserve and hard-liners in Washington and Miami would like. Fidel has spent 40 years successfully tweaking the elites of Washington. Americans like that kind of guy. Given a choice between dogma and an underdog, even uncompassionate conservatives are known to hesitate.

But back to those statistics. Imagine that male life expectancy of 6-year-olds in Cuba was, say, 46.7 more years (or 52.7 total). That's what it is in Haiti, another impoverished Caribbean island that many residents would dearly love to flee (and whose 6-year olds and their parents, if they make it to our shores, are turned back). Or pretend that male life expectancy in Cuba was 58.1 more years (or 64.1 total), the figure for El Salvador. The whole debate over Elián's future would have been very different.

First of all, Juan Miguel himself would have faced a more difficult choice. In this scenario, one or all of Elián's grandparents, still kicking in their late 60s and early 70s, would likely be dead. The judges of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals would have been much strengthened in their skepticism about returning a child to a "Communist-totalitarian" country. Elián's Miami relatives would undoubtedly—and correctly—point out that returning the boy would risk not just his freedom but a decade or two of his life. Anti-Clinton pundits would be accusing Janet Reno of murder. (Well, accusing her of murder again.) Castro's immunization program not only eliminated measles, it also killed off these arguments.

Juan Miguel's choice for himself and his son may, in the end, be wrong. But that choice is more than merely his to make: It's understandable that he would make it. It may be ideological, but it's not obviously crazy. Quite the opposite. 

Jefferson Morley is a Washington writer.

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