What's in the papers these days about little Elian Gonzalez is a reminder that the American left has no interest in learning why his mother risked -- and lost -- her own life so that her boy could live in the United States.

Cubans who made it out know full well why she did it, and it breaks our hearts. Yet for all the political power and economic success of the community, Cuban Americans have not been able to make supposedly compassionate liberals understand.

Much of the straightforward news coverage about Elian has had the subtly condescending tone that distinguishes the Those-Crazy-Cubans-Stuck-in-the-Cold-War School of Journalism. To Newsweek, the controversy over Elian is a reminder of "the Cuban exile community's endless feud with Fidel Castro." In Time, you can read about "Miami's rabidly anti-Castro lobby." The New York Times speaks of the "Cuban-American population's loathing for the 41-year-old government of Fidel Castro."

Sure, an argument can be mounted that the wording itself is not inaccurate. But it is hard to imagine similar terms used to describe communities absorbed in other, more favored causes. Were anti-apartheid activists ever depicted in a mainstream publication as stuck in an "endless feud with P. W. Botha"? Would the NAACP ever be characterized as "a rabidly anti-racist lobby"? Who other than antisemites would write of "the American Jewish community's endless feud with Adolf Hitler"? The link is hard to refute: Cuban Americans are wrong to oppose Castro.

Opinion columnists, of course, have no need of such subtleties. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Elmer Smith attacks "shameless zealots in the so-called `Cuban exile community,' " as if Cubans didn't even merit the label of exiles forced to leave a homeland controlled by a tyrant.

Or take syndicated columnist Molly Ivins, who charges that no presidential candidate has come out for sending the boy back because "what's wrong with politicians is that they all want the Cuban vote in Florida. Talk about disgusting pandering." Gee, Molly, and here I was thinking it was a good thing if a "minority" group gained some sort of influence in the political process.

Then there is USA Today's Jill Nelson, who apparently believes that saying Elian would have a better life in Miami than in Cuba amounts to "speculation, not to mention cultural imperialism."

Cubans, of course, do not need to speculate -- they know the difference between the two systems. Most are either already living in the land of cultural imperialism or, like Elian's mother, willing to give their lives so their children can live there too. But for sheer ignorance it is the Chicago Sun Times' Richard Roeper who takes the prize, for writing that, had Elian's mother survived, "a case could have been made that she was an unfit mother for subjecting a 6-year-old to such peril." The man has no notion whatsoever about the conditions that forced the mother to flee.

In a way it is not surprising. For all the problems this country faces, most Americans do not know what it is like to live in a country where "fundamental human rights of expression, association, assembly, movement, and press remained restricted by law." That's what it is like in Cuba, and the description comes not from some obsessive anti-Castro zealot but from the latest Human Rights Watch report.

This explains why Elian's mother left. It explains why in the early 1960s the 14,000 Cuban families of Operation Peter Pan sent their children unaccompanied to the United States, hoping to someday catch up with them but knowing they would grow up in freedom. It explains why 1 million Cubans have fled their beloved homeland, leaving behind homes, careers, families.

And it explains why 90 percent of Miami's Cubans told a Time magazine poll they want Elian to stay. Cubans see their own loss reflected -- magnified, really -- by a little boy whose mother died so he could grow up a free man.

One would think that in these days of "multicultural awareness," liberals would be eager to understand how Cuban Americans see their own tragedy. One would be wrong.

(C) 2000, King Features Syndicate Inc.