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Jewish World Review Nov. 27, 2002 / 22 Kislev, 5763

Julia Gorin

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Consumer Reports

Thank Elian | All those who are grateful this Thanksgiving, either openly or secretly, that the country is in Republican hands during these turbulent times, should be particularly thankful to the sacrificial lamb that made it possible.

It was three years ago on Thanksgiving morning that five year-old Elian Gonzalez was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean off the Fort Lauderdale coast, having just witnessed his mother die, clinging to an inner tube and reportedly being kept buoyant and safe from sharks by circling dolphins--in a part of the water where dolphins aren't known to swim. Alone in these circumstances for over two days when he shouldn't have survived two hours, the child was one of three survivors amid 13 adults. When he was rescued, the boy was not dehydrated, sun-burned or covered with cuts, blisters or jellyfish stings the way the other two survivors were.

His much contested fate would be a test of American character and the last great test for an administration distinguished for being devoid of it. As consistent as ever, the Clinton Administration failed the test, and early Saturday morning on April 22nd, 2000, federal marshals stormed the Miami Gonzalez home.

After G-d had delivered the boy to freedom, the People delivered him back into the jaws of oppression.

In the reliably Clintonian display of cowering to outside demands, Fidel Castro called for the boy's return, and the United States president obliged. Worse, it was a godless display by the nation--almost spitefully so, given the undeniably divine circumstances of the boy's arrival here.

Indeed, it was an incident wrought with religious symbolism. Many Cubans hearkened back 400 years to the story of a Cuban boy miraculously saved from the sea, a rescue attributed to Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba. Others saw him as a Cuban Moses and believed that just as Moses had been left in the water by his mother with the hope that he would find a better life, and just as Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery, so would Elian do for Cubans--in both cases after a forty-year exodus. Cubans here were convinced that Elian's arrival had a purpose--the demise of Fidel Castro. It was a divine test which, if resolved rightly, would result in the tyrant's fall from power. If decided wrongly, the decrepit dictator would endure.

This is more than mythology. Then President Clinton had the option of turning the case over to family court where the issue would be about what is best for the child. Such a trial would have been unprecedented and its effects far-reaching, for it is Cuba that would have been on trial. All the delusions that Americans harbor about the prison island would have been shattered. The repression, the political murders, the tortures, the sexual tourism, the medical tourism, and all of the ugliness that the American psyche does not currently associate with Cuba, would have been prominently exposed, and Castro's benign fašade would have melted almost overnight. It could have served to galvanize Americans--most of whom support normalizing relations with Cuba--against the island, and the overwhelming public opinion that "a boy should be with his father" would have turned. And Castro would have had a heart attack.

But Elian Gonzales was denied a child's due process, and the allowance granted him by immigration authorities to stay and make a bid for permanent residence was revoked.

Status quo prevailed. So that we continue to be subject to shameful Carter trips to Cuba and shameless Barbara Walters interviews with her dictator ex-lover.

Poetically enough, six months after Elian's ejection and almost exactly a year after his Thanksgiving salvation by chance fishermen, all eyes again fixed on Miami, as the closest election in American history came down to Florida.

In the early morning of November 3, 2000, when it became clear that we weren't soon going to learn who would become the next president of the most Un-united States since the Civil War, my thoughts turned to the child, and a calm overcame me as I recalled the violent April scene. I thought back to how Elian was seized at gunpoint in a night-time, commando-style raid on the unarmed Gonzalez residence, in a country that I'd finally ceased to recognize, while many of its citizens cheered gleefully at our brush with totalitarianism. I knew G-d hadn't forgotten it either.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Among greater Miami's 780,000 Cuban Americans, fewer than 40,000 are registered Democrats. But the Democratic Party had been making inroads among Cuban Americans since the 1980s, and in 1996 Clinton won an estimated 30-35% of their vote in Florida and took the state. This, together with Al Gore's strength among senior citizens, made Florida look promising for the Democrats again. But days after Elian's exile, many of the 40,000 began switching affiliations or simply rallying behind George W. Bush. So that in 2000 Gore drew but 19% of Florida's Cuban vote. The Cuban American National Foundation estimated that if Gore had gotten the votes Clinton got in 1996, he would have won the state by 40,000 to 50,000 votes.

Abuse of power eventually backfires.

And still, rather than gracefully accept a poetically just defeat and recognize that they had reaped the harvest of what they sowed, Democrats tried to seize the elections about as honestly as they seized the child, dragging the country through recounts, hand counts and courts for two months.

Granted, a number of circumstances had to converge to produce the final outcome. But it took all of them; without any and every one, the rest wouldn't have mattered. Considering that 2000 saw the biggest push in history to "get out the (Democratic) vote," which resulted in the largest-ever black turnout--up sharply in Florida and even more solid for Gore than for Clinton--the Republican victory seemed again to have the stamp of divine intervention.

And yet I feel unworthy on behalf of the nation. It feels as though we had our cake and ate it too. We ejected the boy and still were rewarded with a George Bush presidency. Having failed as a nation, shouldn't the proper punishment have been an Al Gore victory? Generously enough, the punishment was reserved for the offending camp, and it translated into a reward for the righteous. But fairly enough, the nation did not escape collective punishment: Fidel Castro remains a problem--and has been resurrected as a clear and present threat, as he colludes with terror forces against America.

So today I thank Elian Gonzalez, though it cost him his hard-won freedom, that what terrorists struck was a George W. Bush America, which does not cower before foreign powers.

I knew the banished child would regain relevance; I just didn't know how soon. I daresay that sometime in the future, Elian, no longer a child, will become relevant to America again.

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2002, Julia Gorin