Panel discusses fate of Cuban child

Todd Milbourn

While Eli n Gonzalez remains in Miami awaiting a federal judge to decide his fate, the Minnesota Cuba Committee pleaded Saturday that the 6-year-old be returned to his native island during a panel discussion at Blegen Hall.
“The boy must be returned to his father,” said Karina Mendoza-Watson, a panel member and University of St. Thomas graduate student, who recently moved to Minnesota from Cuba. “A child shouldn’t be taken from his family because we disagree with a political system.”
It would be the same as the Cuban government taking an American citizen because they don’t like President Clinton, she added.
Eli n’s future has become a political tug-of-war after the U.S. Coast Guard found him clinging to a raft off the Florida coast Thanksgiving Day. The boat had capsized at sea, drowning Eli n’s mother and 10 others attempting to flee the communist island.
Eli n’s Florida relatives are fighting to keep him in the United States, despite an order by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to reunite the boy with his father in Cuba.
The public forum, titled “The Reality of Cuba: Why Eli n Should be Returned to his Homeland,” sought not only to urge Eli n’s prompt return to Cuba, but also to illuminate discrepancies between American perceptions and the reality of Cuba.
“(Cuba) is really a loving place and a great place to grow up,” said Kelly Sheehy, a panelist and St. Thomas student who recently met with Eli n’s father while studying in Cuba. “It’s overwhelmingly family centered.”
August Nimtz, a University political science professor and member of the Minnesota Cuba Committee, praised Cuba’s economic and social advancements in the face of a 40-year American economic embargo.
“The quality of life for Cubans is superior to that for working people in any other third-world country. And it compares favorably to U.S. society,” Nimtz said.
Following the panelists’ remarks, the discussion was opened to the more than 50 students, faculty and concerned citizens who attended the forum.
Ismail ValdÇs, a St. Paul man who fled Cuba on a homemade raft much like Eli n’s in 1995, took the opportunity to paint a different picture of Cuba by sharing his personal experiences.
“Freedom of expression is something you all take for granted,” said ValdÇs, who was kicked out of college, shadowed by Cuban officials and jailed after questioning government policies. “In my country, you don’t have that freedom. In Cuba you belong to the government.”
ValdÇs said a dream of freedom inspired him to leave his family and risk his life by sailing the 90 miles from Cuban shores to America five years ago.
“This is the U.S. — it’s not perfect, but it’s free. I love freedom. That’s why I’m here,” ValdÇs said.
ValdÇs attributed recent street protests in Havana and pleas by Eli n’s father for the boy’s return to political maneuvering by Cuban President Fidel Castro.
“In Cuba, if you don’t march in the streets, you go to jail or lose your job,” he said.
ValdÇs concluded that Eli n should remain in the U.S. until he is old enough to decide his own fate.
“It’s painful, but I think he should stay,” he said. “He should stay because he’s got freedom.”

Todd Milbourn welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3214.