US must return Elian Gonzalez

“My frien’, where you from?” So goes the catch phrase of Havana’s gineteros, the hustlers that U.S. diplomats call the vanguard of capitalism. These warriors for the market economy usually follow up with an offer to sell cigars, salsa music or prostitutes, depending on the time of day.

But today, our group is touring a psychiatric hospital – a crown jewel of Cuban socialism. But the absence of gineteros cannot silence every request. As we tour a handicraft room and say hi to the patients, word gets around that we are from the U.S. Suddenly, a lady stands up at her table and starts clapping and chanting loudly, “¡Que traigan a Elian! ¡Que traigan a Ela¡n!” (trans.: “Have them bring back Elián.”)

Within seconds she is running across the room and recruiting the rest of the patients to join in, and soon enough a roomfull of Cuban psychiatric patients is chanting at us in Spanish to rescue the six-year old known outside of Cuban circles as “the Cuban raft boy.”

I clap appreciatively at the powerful display of grassroots organization, but as we leave I cannot hold back a grimace. I had hoped the mentally infirm would have other things on their minds. I should have known better. People in Cuba just do not have much choice over what they have on their mind.

As I had suspected, the Cuban state is not nearly as politically repressive as its critics say, especially the Cuban Americans that Castro calls the “Miami Mafia” or “worms,” harshly repressive in their own right. But the Cuban government remains the only player in the Cuban media, between its television and radio stations, newspapers and billboards. And a Cuban media blitz has put Elián González on the mind of every Cuban.

Pop singers perform songs at government-organized rallies about Janet Reno and the INS. Billboards and tee shirts carry Elián¹s face. And the Cuban vanguard for democracy in television circulates a mock schedule of “Eliánvisión: All Elián. All the time.”

The Cuban government supplies its citizens with filtered information from the cradle to the grave. We should be able to sympathize with them. Powerful institutions administer the information of their choice in the United States as well. The process goes strong at Williams, too, most recently with the effort to get every student on campus to read The New York Times.

The star two-year old at a Havana day care center puffed his chest out and recited for us biographies of three leaders – Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and “Che” Guevara – of the guerrilla war over 40 years ago. He hit the nail on the head until he got to “Che,” the omnipresent legend who apparently breathed fire and walked on water.

“How silly,” you say. “Only Jesus could walk on water.”

One of the students in our group compared the Communist Pioneers – elementary school students who do a salute and chant “We will be like Che,” which this boy will likely join in a few years – to the Hitler Youth. But if the charge is simply not knowing the truth about our heroes, we have to include every U.S. student who has ever learned the fable about George Washington and the cherry tree, or failed to learn that bootstraps-pulling poster girl Helen Keller was a socialist.

“He fights the Spanish imperialists,” three 14-year old boys explain to me about cartoon hero Elpidio Valdes, pausing to salute a rare billboard of Fidel. “They are trying to take over Cuba, which he doesn’t like. Sometimes he also fights the New York Police Department, but not so much.” Cartoons serve as one of the earliest forms of government brainwashing in both Cuba and the U.S. Anyone who has seen Warner Brothers since-discontinued World War II episode, “Bugs nips the Nips,” – which features the title bunny handing out carrot-looking dynamite sticks to our unsuspecting enemies. Sit through three viewings of every Superfriends episode with your little brother and ask yourself again where you learned that reform must come from within the system. I will not go so far as to say Americans have no more political freedom than Cubans. Free thought still meets institutionalized opposition at every turn in our democracy.

Cuba makes no qualms about limiting free speech. They have the wartime fear that U.S.-allied “fifth columnists” will infiltrate the country and wipe out the gains of the Revolution. The U.S. can allay this fear and further the cause of free expression in Cuba only by making a show of good faith to them. Returning Elián would be a good start. Learning to think freely would be a better one.