Do we take seriously the rights of natural parents? The answer in this week's headlines is a resounding yes--and an equally resounding no.
In a Montgomery County courtroom, Latrena Pixley is once again seeking to regain custody of her soon-to-be 4-year-old son, Cornilous. The case is notorious because Latrena Pixley, mother of four, murdered one of them, six-week-old Nakya. Although many people find infanticide a disqualifying item in any maternal portfolio, family reunification is transcendent with many judges, and in 1997, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge gave the child back to her.
But in Miami, Cuban exiles are screaming that a 6-year-old boy named Elian, who floated ashore from a shipwreck in which his mother died, should not be sent back to his home in Cuba. He has a perfectly good father, an exemplary one by all accounts; but in this case, blood is nothing, ideology is all. The anti-Castroites insist that it is criminal to return him to a dictatorship where he will never know freedom.
Both sides orchestrated a frenzy over the child, who is one of those grave little boys who stabs beholders to the heart. Fidel Castro whistled up massive demonstrations of supposedly enraged Cubans shaking their fists for the return of Elian. In Miami, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a hard-liner, shamelessly used him as a photo op, and Elian's relatives are force-feeding him with the fruits of capitalism--three bicycles, a promise of $2 million for staying, a trip to Disney World.
The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung went to the rundown town where Elian grew up. His mother and father were divorced but amiably shared his custody. He was enveloped in the love of his grandparents. He goes to a good school. There is not even a hint of mistreatment, abuse or neglect. If he were of any other nationality, Elian might long since have been returned to his surviving parent.
But such is the power of the Cuban lobby that Washington has moved with uncertainty, first saying it was a matter for the courts, later asking Elian's father to establish his credentials with U.S. immigration officials as the husband of his former wife and the father of the child.
The uproar has brought about an interesting philosophical reversal. Republicans, they of the iron "family values," want Elian to stay. Democrats, who are accused of indifference to family sanctity, want him to go back.
The issue also brings out another howling contradiction in U.S. foreign policy. Sanctions against Cuba have been in effect since the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The embargo has been relaxed here and there, but what would help all the Elians in Cuba would be to restore normal relations.
The deeper question is: Why do we have an embargo? The official reason given is Castro's lamentable record on human rights. But whose human rights record is as bad or worse? That would be China. But conservative Republican and liberal Democrat alike grow hoarse arguing that we must trade with China, because commerce will shake up totalitarianism and computers will rout tyrants. Here for instance is Republican front-runner George W. Bush on the subject: "When the Internet takes hold in China, freedom's genie is out of the bottle." The question is why wouldn't it do the same in Cuba?
"It is," says a State Department spokesman, "a question that is often asked."
But never answered. That is because no one wants to admit that U.S. lawmakers have abdicated their duty to make policy toward Cuba and have ceded all power to the Cuban exiles in Miami.
In Florida last weekend, Vice President Gore gingerly took note of the case. Whatever is done should be, he said, "in the best interests of the child."
This is a phrase often invoked in the Montgomery Court where Cornilous's fate is being decided. Many strains make the matter complex. The judge who wanted to send him to his natural mother said he would be better off with his African American parent, even if it meant going to the halfway house where she was then living. Laura Blankman, the policewoman who has cared for him since he was 3 months old and who wants to adopt him, is white.
In several famous, ugly cases, judges have taken children out of the hands of adoring adoptive or foster care parents just on the principle of the sacred rights of biological parents. Cornilous's mother may have benefited from all the "parenting" classes the social workers gave her, but who wants to take a chance on a woman who smothered a baby?
With Elian, the sacred right should prevail. Juan Gonzalez is not just a father by his DNA, he's a good father and we all know how having a good father is beyond question "in the best interests of the child."