Shipwreck on dry land

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez 
Special from Cuba


THAT Friday, when Juan Miguel Gonzalez went to collect his son Elian from school to spend the weekend with him, he was told that Elizabeth Brotons, his ex-wife and the child's mother, had taken Elian out at midday and had not returned him in the afternoon. Going to pick up his son was nothing unusual for Juan Miguel in his routine as a divorced parent. After Elizabeth and he had separated on the best of terms two years previously, the child lived with his father, and alternated his days between the latter's and his mother's house. But given that Elizabeth's door was padlocked shut, not only over the weekend but on the following Monday as well, Juan Miguel began to make inquiries. It was thus that he discovered the bad news that was beginning to be public knowledge in the city of Cardenas: Elian's mother had taken him to Miami with 12 other persons, in a five-and-a-half meter aluminum boat, with no lifejackets and a decrepit engine repaired on many occasions. It was November 22, 1999.

"My life ended on that day," says Juan Miguel four months later. After the divorce he had maintained cordial and stable, albeit rather unusual, relations with Elizabeth, as they continued living under the same roof and sharing their dreams in the same bed, with the hope of achieving as lovers the child they had been unable to have as a married couple. It seemed impossible. Elizabeth became pregnant, but suffered from miscarriages in the first four months of pregnancy.

After seven miscarriages, and with special medical care, the long-awaited son was born, and for him they had planned just one name when they married: Elian. This name has attracted attention outside of Cuba. It has been shamelessly said that Elian was a biblical patriarch, and one newspaper has celebrated it as a discovery made by Rubin Dario. But, for Cubans, Elian is just another of the many names they invent, turning their backs on the books of saints' names, like: Usnavi, Yusnier, Cheislisver, Anysleidis, Alquimia, Deylier, Anel. However, what Elizabeth and Juan Miguel did was to create an equitable name for their newborn baby from the first three letters of Elizabeth, and the last two of Juan. Elizabeth was 28 when she took the child to Miami. She had been a good hotel management student, and continued to be an attentive and obliging top-class waitress at the Paradiso-Punto Arenas Hotel in Varadero.

Her father says that she was in love with Juan Miguel Gonzalez when she was 14 and married him at 18. "We were like brother and sister," says Juan Miguel, a quiet man of good character who also worked in Varadero as a cashier in Josone Park. As divorcees and with a child, Juan Miguel and Elizabeth both continued to live in Cardenas—where all the protagonists of this drama were born and lived—until she fell in love with the man who cost her her life: Lazaro Rafael Munero, the local cock of the walk, a womanizer without a regular job, who learned judo not as a sport, but to fight, and had served a two-year prison sentence for armed robbery in Varadero's Siboney Hotel. For his part, Juan Miguel subsequently married Nelsy Carmenate, with whom he now has a six-month-old son who was the love of Elian's life until Elizabeth took him off to Miami.

It didn't take Juan Miguel long to realize where his son was, because everyone knows everything in the Caribbean. "Even before it happens," as one of my informants told me. Everyone knew that the adventure's promoter and organizer was Lazaro Munero, who had made at least two clandestine journeys to the United States to prepare the terrain. Thus he had the necessary contacts and sufficient guts to take not only Elizabeth and her son, but also a younger brother, his own father (over 70 years old), and his mother, who was still recovering from a heart attack. His partner in this enterprise took his entire family: his wife, his parents and his brother, and a neighbor who lived opposite and whose husband was awaiting her in the United States. At the last minute, at a payment of $1000 USD each, he took on board a 22-year-old woman, Arianne Horta, with her five-year-old daughter Esthefany; and Nivaldo Vladimir Fernandez, the husband of a friend.

An infallible formula for a positive reception in the United States is arriving in its territorial waters as a castaway. Cardenas is a good departure point, given its proximity to Florida, and on account of its coves protected by mangrove swamps that make things difficult for the coast guards patrolling its waters. Moreover, the regional art of boat making for fishing in the neighboring Ciinaga de Zapata and the Laguna del Tesoro facilitates the raw materials for the construction of illegal vessels. In particular, the aluminum tubes for irrigating citrus plantations, which go are a dime a dozen when they're no longer good for anything. It's said that Munero must have spent about $200 USD and a further 800 Cuban pesos on the engine and building the boat. The final product was a narrow canoe no longer than a car, without a roof or seats, meaning that the passengers had to travel sitting in the bottom under the full glare of the sun. It is thought that the boat was ready last September, waiting for the end of the hurricane season. The outboard motor wasn't exactly what was needed, but this, after many years of breaking down in the Straits of Florida, was all they could find. Three car inner tubes were on board as life preservers for 14 persons. There was absolutely no space for anyone else. The three inner tubes were black, perhaps because of a Caribbean superstition that this color frightens off sharks, who are naturally shortsighted. Before leaving, the majority of the passengers injected themselves with Gravinol to ward off seasickness. It would appear that they sailed on November 20 from a mangrove swamp in the vicinity of Jag|ey Grande, very close to Cardenas, but had to return due to engine failure. They remained hidden there for two days, waiting for it to be repaired, while Juan Miguel believed that his son was already in Miami. This first emergency made Arianne Horta realize that the risks of the adventure were too great for her daughter, so she decided to leave her on land with her family, to take her at a later date by a safer route.

It has also been said that Elian became aware right there of the dangers of the crossing and sobbed out that he wanted to stay behind. Munero, fearful of being discovered due to the child's wailing, threatened Elizabeth: "Either you shut him up, or I will." Finally, they sailed at dawn on March 22, with a good sea but a bad engine. With the weather like it was, the crossing could be made in 48 to 72 hours in a low-velocity boat. The survivors' account to the press in Florida after the shipwreck, amplified in telephone conversations to their families in Cardenas, placed the terrifying details of the tragedy in the public domain. Their versions are the only ones we have as long as Elian's remains unknown. According to them, at midnight on November 22, the organizers of the trip took off the useless engine and threw it into the sea to lighten the load. But the boat, unbalanced, tipped over on one side and all the passengers fell overboard. However, one theory from the experts is that when the boat tipped it could have broken the fragile soldering of the aluminum tubes, and the boat sank.

It was the end, on a dark night and in an inferno of panic. The adults who couldn't swim must have drowned instantly. One factor operating against the majority of the passengers would have been the Gravinol which does indeed avert seasickness but also provokes drowsiness and slows down reflexes. Arianne and Nivaldo clung to one of the inner tubes; Elian and perhaps his mother clung onto another. Nothing was known about the third tube. Elian could swim, but Elizabeth couldn't, and could easily have lost her grip in the midst of the confusion and terror. "I saw when Mama was lost in the sea," the child would later tell his father on the phone. What is difficult to understand, although it ought to be true, is that she had the serenity and the time to give her son a bottle of fresh water.

Despite the erroneous information, Juan Miguel had a presentiment of the tragedy before it happened. He had made various calls to his uncle Lazaro Gonzalez, who has lived in Miami for years, and inquired about clandestine arrivals or recent shipwrecks, but they had absolutely nothing to tell him. Finally, at dawn on Thursday 25, successive news items broke. The body of a woman was found on the beach by a fisherman. Later Arianne and Nivaldo showed up alive, clinging on to one of the inner tubes. Shortly afterwards it was learned that a child had turned up along the coast at Fort Lauderdale, unconscious and burned by the sun; not clinging to but lying face upwards in another inner tube. It was Elian, the last survivor. Juan Miguel's first decision when he found out was to talk with his son on the phone, but he didn't know where he was. On November 25, a doctor called him from Miami to find out what illnesses Elian had had, medicines that disagreed with him, operations he had undergone. Then he knew with a great joy that it was Elian himself who, in the hospital, had given his father's name and the telephone number and address of his home in Cardenas.

Juan Miguel gave the information requested by the doctor, who phoned him the following day so that he could speak with Elian. Clearly upset, but in a strong voice, Elian told his father how he had seen his mother drown. He also told him that he had lost his backpack and school uniform; Juan Miguel interpreted that as a symptom of disorientation and tried to help him. "No, honey," he told him, "your uniform is here and I have your backpack for when you come back." However, it's also possible that Elian had another set in his mother's house or that they'd bought one for him at the last minute so that he wouldn't insist on returning to the house. His attachment to his school, which is famous among his teachers and classmates, was clearly demonstrated a few days later, when he talked on the telephone with his teacher: "Look after my desk for me."

From those initial calls, Juan Miguel realized that someone in Miami was hindering his phone conversations with Elian. "You should know that, from the beginning, they did everything possible to sabotage us," he told me.

"Sometimes they talk to the boy in loud voices while we're having a conversation, they turn up the volume of the cartoons on the television as high as possible, or put a candy in his mouth so that I can't understand what he's saying." Raquel Rodrmguez and Mariela Quintana, Elian's grandmothers, also suffered from these tricks during their stormy visit to Miami, when a police officer, under the orders of a frenetic nun, snatched the cellular phone with which they were giving news on the child to his family in Cuba. The visit, which had been anticipated over two days, was finally reduced to 90 minutes, with all kinds of deliberate interruptions and only a quarter of an hour alone with Elian.

On account of that, they returned to Cuba horrified at how much they had changed him. "This is not the same child," they stated, afflicted by the timidity and restraint of the boy they recalled as a vivacious, intelligent child with a remarkable aptitude for drawing. "He has to be rescued!"

It would seem that nobody in Miami is concerned about the damage they are inflicting on Elian's mental health with those methods of cultural dislocation to which he is being subjected. At his sixth birthday party in the Miami stronghold, on December 6, his self-seeking hosts took photos of him in a combat helmet, surrounded with lethal weapons and draped in a U.S. flag, shortly before a child of his own age shot dead a schoolmate with a revolver in the state of Michigan. These were not toys expressing love, of course, but the unequivocal signs of a political conspiracy which millions of Cubans unreservedly attribute to the Cuban American National Foundation, created by Jorge Mas Canosa and sustained by his heirs, and which appears to be spending millions of dollars to ensure that Elian is not returned to his father. In other words: Elian's real shipwreck was not on the open sea, but when he stepped on dry land in the United States.

The Cubans' anger at this unusual expropriation has few precedents even within its own Revolution. The popular mobilization and the torrent of ideas that that has been generated in the country to demand the return of the usurped child is spontaneous and spectacular. There is one innovation: the mass participation of youth and children. Catholic poet Cintio Vitier, shocked by U.S. mismanagement of the case, wrote a poem for Elian: "What fools! They have united us forever." From the other shore, a disaffected Cuban exile said the same thing in another way: "The Yankees are so stupid that they have thrust Cuban youth into Fidel's arms."

Nevertheless, the campaign to retain Elian has money and power, even against the legal system of the United States, whose Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) recognized on January 5 that Juan Miguel is the only person authorized to represent the child and act on his behalf.

On January 25, Ambassador Mary A. Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, expressly and publicly asked for the child to be returned to his father as quickly as possible, and warned that a decision to the contrary would be totally out of keeping with the principles her country would defend in the case of a U.S. child. President Clinton declared to the press that no political issues should be allowed to interfere in this case, and that the INS decision should be respected. The extent to which the issue of parental custody has impinged on tensions between the United States and the Cuban Revolution since its origins would appear to be no small coincidence. In 1960, under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA totally invented and propagated in Cuba the false rumor of a law according to which children were to be snatched from their parents by the revolutionary government and sent for early indoctrination in the Soviet Union. Even crueler lies affirmed that the most appetizing children would be sent to Siberian slaughterhouses to be returned as canned meat, and that 50 mothers from Bayamo, in eastern Cuba, had preferred to kill their under-age children rather than subject them to that sinister law. This was what the United States itself christened as Operation Peter Pan. Despite formal denials from Cuba, the Eisenhower administration reached a secret agreement with the U.S. Catholic Church, so that Cuban parents could send their children to the United States, unaccompanied and without passports or baggage. The heartrending exodus, in which the United States invested $28 million USD, created a community of false orphans integrated by force into U.S. culture.

Would it be perverse to associate the case of Elian with the specter of a new Operation Peter Pan? I have been unable to avoid the connection after hearing the public plea of Josi Pertierra, a distinguished lawyer in the Miami immigration service, who arrived from Cuba at the age of 12 in that stream of parentless children, and has just made a televised public appeal to recognize the parental custody of Elian's father. "Not even the relatives in the United States are saying that this father is a bad father," Dr. Pertierra stated. "What they are saying is that they don't like Fidel Castro's politics, but Fidel Castro is not the father of this son." At the end of the interview he left the audience with an interesting thought. "The most worrying thing," he said, "is that judges in Florida are elected, and returning this child could cost a Miami judge's reelection." In this regard, it is worth noting that Judge King, the first magistrate selected to decide on this case, was forced to declare himself unfit on account of his links with the Cuban American National Foundation. His successor, Judge Hoeveler, suffered a dubious brain hemorrhage. Michael Moore, the current judge, does not appear to be in too much of a hurry to announce his findings before the elections. In any event, many Cubans are worried that the Clinton administration does not dare to return the child, in spite of its laws and its own convictions, fearing that Democratic candidate Al Gore will lose the Florida vote. Nevertheless, the legal and historical loss could be far more costly for the United States than an electoral one, as more than 10,000 U.S. children are currently dispersed throughout various parts of the world, taken from their country by one of their parents without the authorization of the other. The gravity of the situation for them is that if the parents remaining in the United States wish to recover them, the precedent of Elian could be utilized to prevent it.

Havana, March 15, 2000
Originally published by Juventud Rebelde Design: Martha Lspez M. Proofreading: Marma Teresa Nogueira Havana, March 21, 2000 Translation by Granma International