Elian, Go Home!

You might actually avoid being killed in the streets of America

As I write this, the Elian Gonzalez matter is unresolved, if that's what you call it when there's a standoff replete with legal flurries, a veritable Cuban-American Woodstock outside the Elian compound ("And now Arturo Sandoval will play his trumpet!"), and Attorney General Janet Reno—whose worst nightmare has to be the prospect of a Waco with conga drums—making home deliveries of shuttle diplomacy to the Gonzalez family.

I don't at this writing know how, or if, it was resolved. You've got Bernard Shaw for that. I'd rather focus on the overarching presumption that has clouded the Elian matter, as it has virtually every international question: that we, as Americans, are the cat's meow.

It went unquestioned in the Elian saga that the little fellow would have a better life here, to the degree that his Miami relatives claimed it would be child endangerment to return him to Cuba.

Yet it isn't Cuba where 4,223 children per year are killed by gunfire, where millions of kids are growing up with no health coverage, where the gap between rich and poor grows ever more stratified while 10 percent of the population already has 80 percent of the wealth, where we put more money into punishing people than we do into educating them. It isn't Cuba where "pro family" Republicans are employing a heartless ideology and the machinations of the state to separate a good father from his son.

That's us, Jack. And it's our "friends" such as Brazil where police-affiliated goon squads round up orphan street kids in the night and "disappear" them. There may actually be few places in the Americas where Elian would be safer than in Cuba.

Cuba, though, is a slave state because its people aren't blessed with the bracing choice that we have: George W. Bush or Al Gore. They may have universal heath care. Despite our 4-decade-old embargo, they may have a better education system and standard of living than most of our hemispheric allies. They may have a smaller percentage of their population in prison than we do. They, like most other civilized nations, may have abolished the death penalty by which our nation has killed scores of innocent people. But they are not free.

I don't have many illusions about communism. I know several people who lived under communist regimes—one of whom was even in a Soviet "mental hospital"—and they do not recommend the experience. I traveled in the Soviet Union back when there was one, and it was the most screwed-up place I've ever been, aside from an Ozzy show I attended in the '80s.

But the people I saw living under the hammer and sickle loved one another just as much, loved their kids, joked and played and lived much as "free" people do. They hated their jobs, felt their government blew, and seemed resigned that they were helpless to reform it, which only describes virtually every U.S. citizen I know.

The persons I know who have sojourned to Cuba—where we, a free people, are not permitted by our government to travel—have come back with a somewhat different story, of a people who justly take pride in the advances they've made and in the way their tiny nation has stood up to us. They find Castro's shortcomings and entrenched power easier to forgive because they see that as the bulwark necessary to withstand their neighbor to the north, who has besieged them for decades—economically, clandestinely and militarily. Our nation of laws, under which assassination is illegal, attempted several times to assassinate Castro, without our government ever asking our opinion on the matter.

KCET's Huell Howser was in Cuba a couple of years ago. I don't know how or why; maybe he took a wrong turn on his way to the La Brea Tar Pits. He returned with marvelous footage from Havana of bands playing on the beds of slow-moving trucks while thousands of people danced and partied in the streets. That is a freedom of a sort I've never seen practiced around here.

I don't live in Cuba. I live here, and somewhere down the line, we've allowed our freedom to become defined solely on a spreadsheet. You have the freedom to make money. It supersedes your freedom to swim in clean water. It colors our education system, once concerned with producing citizens, now with producing workers and consumers. We decry Cuba's lack of freedom but must only mean its lack of economic freedom, since we're only too happy to coddle despots and monarchs whenever our corporations stand a chance to benefit.

I like money. I would like more of it. But I am goddamned if I'm going to let it be the measure of my freedom, as our nation increasingly does. How about the freedom to hang out with your buddies with a card table and a bottle of rum on the sidewalk in front of your home? Try that in Irvine sometime. Forget about dancing in the street: try doing it in a nightclub that doesn't have a government permit. Try playing live music without the often impossible-to-get city approval. You're free to pursue happiness, as long as it's at the megamall.

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