Elian's Legacy

Within segments of the Cuban-American community there is a belief that Elian Gonzalez is a messiah of sorts, protected by God and sent here to expedite the fall of Fidel Castro. Unfortunately I don't see it that way. Elian's greatest impact has always been centered on Miami, not Havana. Through no fault of his own, this six-year-old boy has proven to be the single greatest destructive force in South Florida since Hurricane Andrew.

At this point in the saga, whether Elian returns to Cuba or stays in the United States is largely irrelevant. His future is the least of our worries. This controversy has dispelled any illusions that Miami was maturing as a community, or that it has earned the right to think of itself as a world-class city. Miami is a mess. Twenty years after the turmoil of the Mariel boatlift and the Liberty City riots, we continue to be deeply divided along racial and ethnic lines, no closer to understanding each other and seemingly resigned to the idea that we never will. As a result Miami can be brought to its knees by a single, ethnically charged event.

With so much attention placed on the minutiae of Elian's legal battles, there has been little time to reflect on what this affair tells us about ourselves. Still, certain truths are being reinforced by this crisis, most notably the chronic dearth of leadership. What passes for "political courage" in this town truly is frightening.

The Elian saga has torn a path through South Florida that will take years to mend
Bill Cooke
The Elian saga has torn a path through South Florida that will take years to mend

Evidently Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Miami Mayor Joe Carollo have come to believe that holding forth as masters of ceremonies every day at the block party in front of Elian's Little Havana home can be equated to leadership. Carollo and Penelas are accomplishing nothing but getting their mugs on television. Their presence doesn't maintain calm; it only creates the dangerous perception that the highest elected officials in South Florida endorse Lazaro Gonzalez's criminal defiance of the Attorney General of the United States. All they are doing is emboldening Lazaro, feeding his already inflated ego and his misguided sense of right and wrong.

I'm sure it must be fun rubbing elbows with Gloria Estefan and Andy Garcia in the Gonzalez living room, but what Penelas and Carollo need to do is convince Lazaro to deliver Elian peacefully into the hands of the boy's father. Please stop telling me that Elian's Miami relatives have respect for the law when we all saw and heard Lazaro rebelliously declare that marshals would have to take the child by force.

Besides a pathetic lack of leadership, other serious flaws in our community have emerged. For one thing the level of anger and bitterness among Anglos toward Cuban Americans is much greater than I ever imagined. We all knew it was there, but until Elian arrived I don't think anyone appreciated its depth. The reasons for this anger are numerous, many of them stemming from the wrong-headed notion that Miami was a great city until "they" began arriving from Cuba. The fantasy that pre-Cuban Miami was ideal is as ludicrous as the belief that Cuba was a model of democracy prior to Castro taking power.

But there also is justification for the exasperation felt by Anglos. Whenever Cuban Americans try to excuse their behavior by proclaiming they are a passionate, emotional people, or that non-Cubans will never understand their pain and suffering, it infuriates me as well. Whether intended or not, those proclamations are tinged with arrogance. The message actually being conveyed is that Cuban Americans believe Cubans are special, Cubans are unique. The problem is that once you start down that path, declaring yourself distinct from every other group of people, you also make yourself a target and isolate yourself from the rest of the community. That's when things get dangerous.

If repeated often enough, with enough conviction, people may begin to believe what Cuban Americans are saying: that only Cubans can understand the pain of the Cuban diaspora. If people begin to believe that, then non-Cubans will stop trying to understand Cuban Americans. Once that happens we will all be lost.

Over the weekend a woman wrote me a letter that is typical of many I've received recently. She noted that "the Elian case has brought out a sense of hurt" she didn't realize she harbored. "I don't understand how Americans have become the enemy to this section of the population," she offered. "Most Americans can, or have tried, to appreciate [Cuban-American] culture and have even learned new languages. Why can't they appreciate the struggle that our nation has been through to achieve certain rights? My grandparents came here from Italy through Ellis Island in the 1930s, learned and appreciated American history, lifestyle, and language. They never felt the need to fight against the very society that had given them the opportunity to prosper."

In the course of writing this, I called a friend whose opinion I value. Her parents are from Cuba but she was born in the United States. She told me she has been in a deep depression for months over not just the fate of Elian but the havoc this melodrama has wreaked on Miami. "It has unearthed a lot of crap, a lot of resentment," she said.

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