April 14, 2000

'You Live in Fear'

Newsweek, April 12, 2000

Twenty years ago, the 12-year-old made headlines as "the littlest defector": Walter Polovchak, the son of Ukrainian émigrés, ran away from home in 1980 after his parents decided to return to the Soviet Union. A sympathetic Reagan Administration helped drag out court procedures for the following four years, until Walter was old enough to make his own decision about where to live. He moved in with relatives, and his parents returned to the Soviet Union without him. His is the closest case in recent history to that of Elián González. Today, Polovchak is 32, married, and living in the Chicago suburbs. He recently left his own six-year-old behind to fly to Miami for a visit with 6-year-old Elián and his relatives. Last week, Polovchak spoke to NEWSWEEK's Pat Wingert.

NEWSWEEK: Why did you decide to make the trip to Miami?

POLOVCHAK: I wanted to show my support for Elián at this crucial moment....I've been in a similar situation, and I know, you live in fear. You're in limbo—not knowing what is going to happen from day to day.

Had you been in contact with Elián or his relatives before?

No, but they were familiar with my story, and had contacted my attorneys and talked to them about it.

How did the meeting with Elián go?

He was very cool to me to start with, of course—I was a stranger to him. And it reminded me of how I used to feel in similar situations. Strangers would come in and I didn't know why there were there—were they there to take you away or help you. But once the family had translated to him who I was and why I was there, that I had once been in a similar situation, he relaxed and we played around a little bit and he let me hold him.

Do you think Elián understands what's going on?

I don't think he's a typical 6-year-old, just like I wasn't a typical 12-year-old. When you're brought up in a country where life is difficult, you become more mature, and I think you understand things a little more. I think Elián understands what's going on. He wants to see his father, but he also wants to stay here and he's afraid because he thinks his father's come to take him away.

What do you think should happen in this case?

Hopefully, the government will give [Elián and his father] freedom, like they gave me twenty years ago, which I am very thankful for. I think our government should give Juan González and his family an opportunity— they should open the door and say he can stay here, if he chooses to... My feeling is, if we ultimately give [Cuba] custody of Elián, they will immediately send him out to a psychiatrist to de-Americanize him and brainwash him.

But ultimately, isn't this his father's decision to make?

You have to understand, Juan González is not saying what he truly feels and wants for his son. The government is very involved and dictating what he should say, what he should do and what he should not do... Ultimately, I think this is the best place for [Elián] to be. He can always go back to Cuba any time—that option is always open to him. But he'll never have the same opportunity to leave Cuba.

Has this controversy prompted a flood of memories for you?

I feel like I'm going back 20 years into my life and seeing it all happen again, as an adult bystander, watching all this: the memories and fears of being in this situation, with the cameras and media and photographers and government people and attorneys. It was very scary. I never really got rid of the fear until I turned 18 and got my U.S. citizenship in my hand. That was the happiest day of my life. It was like a huge weight rolled off my shoulders.

© 2000 Newsweek, Inc.



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