April 10, 2000

Cuban Exiles Struggle Against Rationality

Salim Muwakkil. Chicago Tribune. April 10, 2000

As the Elian Gonzalez travesty drags on, with U.S. officials cravenly accommodating the fanaticism of extremist Cuban exiles, deeper questions about our relationship with Cuba are gaining more attention.

What, for example, is the purpose of this country's embargo against Cuba? If we're so confident that market capitalism is the most efficient economic system, why are we sabotaging tiny Cuba's attempts to create a socialist economy? Isn't it doomed to fail anyway?

Are we prosecuting an embargo against the people of Cuba simply because of the personal problems U.S. lawmakers have with Fidel Castro? Are we blocking essential goods, including needed medical supplies, from reaching an island nation of 11 million people because of a primitive, "bogeyman" foreign policy? The answer to that question is yes.

But increasing numbers of Americans are questioning the utility of a 40-year embargo crafted during the long-dead Cold War era. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the farm lobby and other influential forces are urging an end to the embargo. Baseball diplomacy is in full swing. Illinois Gov. George Ryan made a high-profile trip to Cuba last year in what many interpreted as a sure signal that anti-embargo sentiments had gone mainstream.

And why not? Since Cuba poses no threat whatsoever to U.S. interests it seems rational to encourage bilateral interaction and allow the market to work its reputed magic.

But that kind of rationality is the enemy of the Cuban exiles, for whom Castro is not just a bogeyman but an agent of Satan. For them, the emotional tale of a shipwrecked little boy being rescued and brought to Miami was a godsend. Its mythic resonance has helped transform a 6-year-old into a powerful symbol of anti-Castro emotion.

Elian's entry into the story has sparked such flights of irrationality, some exiles claim to have spotted the Virgin Mary in a window of the Miami home in which he's been living. Since being rescued from the shipwreck that killed his mother, Elian has spawned a cottage industry of exile mythmaking.

When that exile community and their American sycophants speak of Cuba they evoke a desolate island, shorn of amenities and tyrannized by a dictator. Seldom do they mention the island's notable successes in lengthening life expectancy on the island to 73 years for men and 78 for women. This rate is comparable to the U.S. and is the highest of any other country in the Southern Hemisphere.

Adult literacy on the island is 96 percent and every citizen has access to free medical care in a system that may be lacking by U.S. standards (and partly because of the U.S. embargo), but it's a system the World Health Organization considers one of the world's best. For example, Cuba's infant mortality rate is listed by the WHO at 7.1 deaths per 1,000 live births. In Chicago, that rate is 10.9 for the general population; for African-Americans the rate is 17.2, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

When champions of Elian's expatriation from Cuba argue that he has the chance for a better life in this country, few mainstream voices disagree. There is a widespread assumption that the U.S. can offer him far more opportunities for success than Cuba. By success, of course, we mean more money and access to alluring consumer goods.

Many of us may find it hard to live without such goods, but they don't feed our souls. A life of satisfaction is not necessarily spelled out in gross domestic product. In fact, in our more pious moments we avidly curse the pull of materialism on our lives. Are we now equating quality of life with quantity of toys?

The extremists in the Cuban exile community and their right-wing American allies point to the repressive regime of Castro as the primary reason Elian would be better off here. But Castro's Cuba has a much better human-rights record than Colombia, for example, which is in line for a huge infusion of U.S. military aid. And that's not even mentioning the horrors we wrought in El Salvador, Haiti and Guatemala in our attempts to save them from Cuban-styled communism.

Although polls show most Americans think Elian Gonzalez should be returned to his father, Republican leadership, including GOP presidential candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush, urge us to keep the boy. In one of the more sickening examples of political pandering, Vice President and Democrat presidential candidate Al Gore also favors making legal contortions to kiss the feet of the vote-rich Cuban exile community.

Politicians can still accrue political currency by Castro-bashing, but the payoff is getting smaller. Cuban exiles have seized on the saga of a rescued innocent to up the ante.




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