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Elian, Go Home!

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.

Meanwhile, your body belongs to the state: it, not you, determines that you must suffer through every second of a devastating fatal illness. Your mind belongs to the state: run anything other than the government-approved drugs through it, and you'll be jailed. Your soul belongs to the state: try to find legal tender that doesn't say "In God we trust." Even your government isn't your government: your taxes serve the interests of a few. Our foreign policy consistently puts the interests of the rich and powerful over our stated ideals, and—as with Iran-contra—does much of it in secret.

Meanwhile, there's a virtual media firewall shielding us from hearing about the freedoms being pursued elsewhere. Little is heard, for example, about the potential dangers of genetically engineered foods and how a grassroots movement throughout Europe led to the banning and study of those Frankenfoods, a decision that values people, the environment and reasoned science over an expedient profit. You'd scarcely know of this populist victory from our media, which instead profits from gushy commercials telling us how unquestionably wonderful biotech is. Similarly, we see a lot of pharmaceutical commercials but little reporting on how U.S. citizens pay more than five times more for medicine than an Australian does. Thank God we live in a free society where the media aren't dominated by one voice, as in Cuba, but, gee, by three or four huge corporations.

Communism doesn't work, but neither does capitalism particularly, not when you're paying a dollar at the market for a pound of oranges for which the farmer is paid six cents, and the poor schlub who picked them is paid next to nothing. It's not working when you have legislators letting lobbyists write their laws. It's not working when we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and when kids are shooting kids and cops are shooting everyone.

If we could stop being the Greatest Nation in the World for a few minutes, we might notice that in some other nations, people are measuring their freedom by their capacity to share, to be more informed, more joyful, more spiritual, more able to feel a part of a community rather than just another shark in a tank.

I far prefer the mess of the free market to gray government control, but there is an obligation on us to free the free market so that it might express our values rather than be a slave to perpetual glut. As informed consumers, we need to reward businesses that act with a conscience. As businesspeople, we need to see profit as the natural consequence of a job well-done, not as the only goal.

Otherwise, we'll keep spiraling insanely out of control. I can see no better example of our present course than in the way the Elian saga is being covered. This little kid's little world is surrounded by TV cameras and helicopters, even as the on-camera commentators are making news of how this spectacle must be warping and damaging him. Yet no one is calling off the copters because they're all at the trough of profit, and the freedom to do the right thing be damned. Enough already!


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