When Keli Lerdal and a number of University students attended a neighborhood gathering in Havana, Cuba, last month, they were surprised to see the people of Cuba had no axe to grind against them about the Eli n Gonz lez issue.
One of the speakers strongly criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba, but told the crowd the students were not related to the U.S. government and were not responsible for the kidnapping of Eli n Gonz lez.
“Their attitude toward people of the U.S. is very welcoming,” Lerdal said.
She and about 20 University students were able to see the little-known Cuban perspective on the Elian debate when they visited Cuba during spring break. The trip was part of a Cuban and Puerto Rican history class.
Fishermen found Eli n Gonz lez floating off the Florida coast last November. The boy’s mother was lost at sea, and the authorities turned Elian over to his great-uncle in Miami.
Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonz lez, who lives in Cuba, has since been trying to regain custody of the child. But family members in Florida are fighting back to keep him in the United States.
The Elian issue launched a major debate in the United States and on the island, opposing in particular the Justice Department and the anti-Castro Cuban-American community in Miami.
Some of the students saw Cuban leader Fidel Castro speak against the U.S government and its attitude in the Elian debate at a conference on Latin American and Caribbean students at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana.
Ned Moore, a political science sophomore, said Castro related the history of the Cuban revolution before addressing the Elian issue and speaking out against the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Castro said the boy’s father, Juan Miguel Gonz lez, was on his way to the United States that day. He also said the U.S. government did not award visas to some of the boy’s classmates who were supposed to accompany him.
“It’s really a political issue as it’s become in the last few days if not before,” said August Nimtz, who coordinated the trip. “Everyone knows that if this child were from another country they would have been returned immediately.”
Nimtz and the students said the Cuban population finds the issue absurd.
“There was a general feeling around the country that (Elian) should be returned to Cuba with his dad,” Lerdal said.
Nimtz said that, as opposed to the images the American press has been conveying, Cuba is a great place for Elian to grow up.
Nimtz said Cubans acknowledge their country is poor, but they are proud of their heritage and culture.
In January, immigration authorities decided to send the boy back to Cuba.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is currently pushing authorities to accelerate the process of reuniting Elian with his father, something that students who made the trip to Cuba agree with.
“There’s no reason for him to be here,” Lerdal said.
David Anderson covers international perspectives and professional schools and can be reached at [email protected]