Madeleine Albright has an opinion on almost anything. Ask the secretary of state about some obscure country and she'll have something informative, even pointed to say. Ask her about the role of the United States in the 21st century and you'll get more than you bargained for. But ask her about a 6-year-old boy whose Cuban father wants him returned from Florida and she is amazingly without a public position.
Her boss, the president, also lacks a position on this issue. Asked last month about the fate of Elian Gonzalez, Bill Clinton at first said that, as a dad himself, he was "of course" sympathetic with the father. But he said the law had to take its course, the best interests of the boy had to be taken into account, and he twice mentioned that the whole process should proceed without regard to politics. Only a cynic could possibly think the president did not mean what he said.
Just to make matters perfectly clear--as they used to say in Washington whenever the truth was about to take a beating--Albright struck precisely the same note. Appearing Sunday on "Meet The Press," she said young Elian "can't become a political football." She added that "we all have to think about the child" and "who speaks for the child" and matters such as that. In the meantime, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was mulling over the dilemma and--just for good measure--she once again used the phrase "political football." That, she vowed, would not happen to this child.
By now, if you are allergic to cant and hypocrisy, your face will have broken out. It is apparent to everyone that Elian Gonzalez has, in fact, become a political football. It is just as apparent that when it comes to deciding "who speaks for the child," it is the father back in Cuba, a hotel doorman named Juan Miguel Gonzalez. He and the boy's mother, Elizabet Brotons Rodriguez, were divorced nearly four years ago. They shared custody of their child.
In November, though, the mother, her boyfriend, Elian and 11 others got into a small boat and tried to make it to Florida. The craft was swamped in heavy seas and most of the passengers drowned, including Rodriguez and her boyfriend. Elian's fate, the Clinton administration initially announced, would be decided by the Florida courts. Later the INS got into the act.
You can only imagine what would have happened had a mother and her boyfriend spirited a child from, say, England to the United States, died on the way (say from bad airline food) and the father demanded custody. The kid would be on the next plane back. It would be the same with just about any country you can name.
But Cuba is not any country. It's not that Elian would live any worse in Havana than he would in most other places in the world. It's rather that the Cuban community in Florida, for totally understandable reasons, is viscerally anti-Castro. It does not want Elian returned. It doesn't have much of an argument but it does have something else: votes.
And so the U.S. government, from the president on down, has caved. An election is coming up. Vice President Al Gore is running for president. Florida has a primary. After that comes the general election. Juan Gonzalez may be the father, but he doesn't have a vote. The Cuban American community does--lots of them. To the Clinton administration, this is a no-brainer.
I cannot mention no-brains without, of course, bringing up the name of Fidel Castro. Almost instantly, he organized rallies condemning the United States and urging the return of Elian. He took a political football and threw it for a Hail Mary. The totally predictable consequence, of course, is that everyone dug in his heels. I have the feeling that if Castro had said, "Keep the kid," Elian would have been sent back by FedEx.
The facts, though, remain unchanged. Elian has a father. By Cuban standards, the father has a good job. The boy has a home in Cuba, grandparents as well. The despotic leader of his country is in his mid-seventies, heading for his comeuppance.
As for this country, it has its laws, its values--and one of them is that we don't take a child away from a father on account of politics. And yet this is what is being done now, and why both the secretary of state and the president, two people brimming with opinions, oddly have none at all about where a little boy belongs. It's with his father. If it wasn't for politics, that would not be a matter of opinion at all.