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The Fight Over Elian—and Castro

Norman Podhoretz

Looking back on the story of Elian Gonzalez now that it is moving toward an all but inevitable denouement in his return to Cuba, I am reminded of nothing so much as the immortal epigram of Yogi Berra: “It was deja vu all over again.”

What I mean is that from the moment this little boy set foot on American soil, all the old passions over Fidel Castro’s Cuba were aroused and began swirling beneath many of the high-sounding arguments of legal and moral and psychological principle over whether Elian should stay in the U.S. with his relatives or be turned over to his father in Cuba. From time to time these passions boiled up and roared to the surface, as when some Cuban-Americans in Miami declared that they were willing to die to prevent Elian from being repatriated to communist Cuba.

But conversely, we also glimpsed sudden eruptions of the true feelings that often lay behind the case for sending Elian back. These feelings sometimes took the form of the hatred — no milder word will do — aroused by the Cuban-American community’s intransigent anticommunism. Speaking for legions, the Washington Post columnist Judy Mann accused this community of “poisoning American-Cuban relations ever since Mr. Castro took over.”

Several other commentators even characterized the priority Little Havana was allegedly giving to political over family considerations as (in the words of the New Republic) “a signature idea of the totalitarianism the Cuban exiles so passionately oppose.” A little more temperately, Tim Padgett in Time perceived “a heavy touch of Joe McCarthy” in the spokesman for Elian’s Miami relatives.

On television Katie Couric of NBC’s “Today” show chimed in with a similarly malicious judgment. When certain people declared that it was “wrong to expect Elian Gonzalez to live in a place that tolerates no dissent or freedom of political expression,” she observed sardonically, “they were talking about Miami.” And Bill Press, on CNN’s “Crossfire,” could detect no difference between the mayor of Miami and such intransigently segregationist Southern governors of the 1950s as Orval Faubus and George Wallace.

Nor was it only the Cuban-Americans whom the left excoriated for allegedly using the Elian incident as “a marvelous opportunity . . . to drag out their weary Cold War rhetoric” (Ms. Mann again). In their view, everyone who opposed the forcible deportation of Elian was guilty of the unforgivable sin of anticommunism.

Never mind that there were people on the right — notably the editorialists of the New York Post and Rep. Steve Largent (R., Okla.) — to whom in this instance “family values” trumped anticommunism. They simply thought that Elian, having lost his mother in their journey to the U.S., would be better off living with his father, even in a miserable country like Cuba.

Still, the conservative anticommunists who took this position constituted a small minority among their political fellows (though they were perhaps less lonely than Al Gore once he came out against President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno in his tortured support of residency status for Elian). In spite of these exceptions on both sides, the struggle over Elian was on the whole a fight between the left and the right. Furthermore, it was a mutation of the same fight that started not, as Judy Mann imagines, immediately when Mr. Castro came to power, but only after the deceptions through which he assumed power had been exposed and his true intentions revealed.

In the late 1950s, when Mr. Castro was still a guerrilla leader in the mountains fighting to overthrow the Batista regime, he represented himself as a “Jeffersonian democrat.” Thanks largely to Herbert Matthews, the credulous New York Times correspondent covering him, this falsehood spread far and wide. Hence, when Mr. Castro marched into Havana at the beginning of 1959, his victory was widely celebrated as a triumph of liberal democracy over “fascist” tyranny. He himself came here on a visit shortly afterward during which he was lionized — and not just by the left.

By 1960, however, the putative Jeffersonian democrat was beginning to show his true colors as a communist with fraternal ties to the Soviet Union and an abiding enmity toward “Yankee imperialism.” At this point, both the small number of conservatives who had briefly been taken in by Mr. Castro and the commensurately tiny group on the left who, though adhering to socialism, had no illusions about the benevolence of the Soviet Union or of the totalitarian nature of communism in practice, jumped ship. But in the U.S., as elsewhere, a “new left” was emerging whose members denied the increasingly visible signs of Mr. Castro’s true political character, or brushed it aside, or even approved of it.

Probably the two most influential apologists for the Castro regime were the American sociologist C. Wright Mills and the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, then generally considered the world’s leading intellectual. Mills’s 1960 book, “Listen, Yankee,” presented a veritably intoxicated romantic picture of the Cuban revolution as a new phenomenon in human history and the harbinger of great glories to come.

Sartre, too, interpreted the Cuban revolution as something new under the sun: a nonideological existentialist development defining itself as it went along. Like Mills, he pooh-poohed the already blatant signs of growing communist influence within Cuba, and he found good business sense in Mr. Castro’s economic ties with the Soviet Union (which to him was on a far higher plane both morally and politically than the U.S. anyway).

By the time John F. Kennedy entered the White House in 1961, it was impossible for anyone but the besotted (of whom there were still plenty) to stick with this line. Within Cuba itself, the revolution had begun doing what so many revolutions before it had done: devour its own. More and more of Mr. Castro’s original comrades — especially those who really did believe in democracy — were driven out of office or imprisoned, to be replaced by self-declared Communists, and refugees began flowing into the U.S. with their own tales of horror.

With Cuba manifesting every indication of being turned into a Soviet base, the new Kennedy administration felt it had no choice but to attempt getting rid of the “Maximum Leader,” as he was now called. The notorious invasion through the Bay of Pigs was authorized, and it turned out to be what one commentator called “a perfect failure.”

The effect was to inject Mr. Castro with a new infusion of sympathy from the left. Its most extreme expression came from the novelist Norman Mailer in an open letter to the Maximum Leader: “You were the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second War.” And in another open letter, this one to JFK, Mr. Mailer hailed Mr. Castro as “one of the great figures of the 20th century.”

Others assigned that exalted role to Mr. Castro’s friend and associate Che Guevara even while he was still alive. But after being killed in Bolivia in 1967 while on a mission to spread the revolution throughout Latin America, Guevara achieved the status of a secular martyr, which he has not quite lost to this day.

Meanwhile, conditions in Cuba went from bad to worse. The extreme poverty that blanketed the island was blamed by Mr. Castro’s apologists on an American boycott, but even Che Guevara himself — whose anti-Americanism was easily a match for Mr. Castro’s — acknowledged that the regime’s mismanagement of the economy was actually to blame.

Then there was the ever-tightening grip of political repression as Mr. Castro stripped off his “Jeffersonian democrat” mask and openly strove, with great success, to turn himself into a clone of Stalin and to establish a totalitarian system in Cuba worthy of its Soviet model. To top it all off, there was the support Mr. Castro gave to communist insurgencies throughout Central America and the troops he dispatched in the 1970s to faraway Africa to fight for the communist regime in Angola.

Under these circumstances, most of Mr. Castro’s old defenders had to keep biting their tongues. Yet the ones among them who might be described as anti-anticommunists, rather than outright supporters of revolutionary Marxism, kept pushing for better relations between Washington and Havana. Against even the testimony of the Cuban leadership itself, they never stopped believing that America had “forced” Mr. Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union, and they also persisted in holding Washington rather than Havana responsible for the troubles between us.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, this group — which included many former diplomats who had once served in the region — started pressing even harder for an end to the U.S. embargo and a resumption of normal relations. A humanitarian component was now added to their position, since the loss of Soviet subsidies had plunged Cuba into its deepest economic crisis ever.

Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in Commentary in 1992, observed that — in spite of everything — “even now the Castro regime exercises a residual hold on the loyalties of our cultural elite, perhaps as an anti-mirror of American patriotism, order, property — the whole bourgeois bag of tricks.” To read through much of the comment elicited by Elian Gonzalez was to become aware that in this respect little had changed.

It was one thing for the Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez to sneer in the New York Times that “the real shipwreck of Elian did not take place on the high seas, but when he set foot on American soil” (a country that was perfectly symbolized for this eminent writer by the recent shooting in Michigan of a classmate by a boy of Elian’s age). Mr. Marquez, after all, was a longtime friend of and servile cheerleader for Mr. Castro. But Americans were not lacking to add their voices to the repellent chorus conducted by Mr. Marquez. Some even went so far as to claim that it would be good for Elian to grow up in Cuba not just because he would be reunited with his father but because he would have a happier life there than here.

Thus, Michelle Singletary, a financial columnist for the Washington Post, expressed near-envy at the absence of Barbie dolls and store-bought toys in Cuba (while accepting at face value the discredited claims about the wonders of free health care and education there). Mary McGrory, also in the Washington Post, and David Corn, in The Nation, fished up almost the same details. Ms. McGrory, too, was troubled by the toys Elian was being given, and Mr. Corn ridiculed the child’s relatives here who “asserted that Elian’s future would be brighter were he . . . raised in the land of Disney World and Toys `R’ Us.” (This, like the shooting in Michigan for Mr. Marquez, was evidently Mr. Corn’s notion of an adequate definition of the U.S.) Finally, Jill Nelson, in USA Today, denounced the thought that Elian would have a better life in America as “cultural imperialism.”

It is (barely) forgivable that Mr. Castro’s revolution in the Jeffersonian camouflage of its infancy should have struck many naive people as the harbinger of a better society than we had here. But that this same delusion should remain alive today is not only a matter of “deja vu all over again.” It is a striking illustration of another much-quoted remark by no less an authority than Karl Marx: “Hegel says somewhere that all great events and personalities in world history reappear in one fashion or another. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”



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