A Child's Right To Life

By Andrew Lewis

On Thanksgiving Day, 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez was plucked from an inner tube in the seas off South Florida. He was one of only three survivors from a shipwreck whose casualties included his mother and stepfather. Two days earlier they had escaped the communist "Workers' Paradise" of dictator Fidel Castro.'

Since his rescue, relatives in Florida have cared for young Elian and appealed for political asylum so that he may grow up in a free country. Almost immediately, however, the boy's natural father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez--now re-married with a new family--demanded that the US return Elian to Cuba. Early in January, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, supported by President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, announced that the us would recognize Gonzalez's parental rights and accede to his demands. Various legal and political devices have since been employed to delay the boy's return--a Florida judge has granted temporary custody to the child's relatives in the US--but his ultimate fate is uncertain.'

Clinton's policy of appeasement is no surprise. It is his attitude in all matters of foreign policy because his premise of multiculturalism tells him that a dictatorship is morally equivalent to a free country.'

The attitude of the political right--including some who argue that Elian should remain in America--is even worse. Their premise was stated clearly by presidential candidate Alan Keyes: "Family rights come before communism." A free country, in this view, must defer to parental rights even if the parent has no rights at all.'

Those such as Keyes who claim to support the boy's right to stay in America argue only that we cannot know the father's real desires unless he comes to the US--along with his new family--and can therefore speak freely. Apparently if Juan Gonzalez came to America and maintained his desire to take Elian back to Cuba, these "defenders of freedom" would simply shrug their shoulders, say "The father has spoken," and send him back. They evade the crucial point that a parent who wants to rear a child in a totalitarian dictatorship has rendered himself unfit to be awarded custody.'

What would Elian face in Cuba? Castro allows no recognition of a father's right to raise his child; Cuban children are sent to compulsory child-labor-indoctrination camps at the age of 12. (Elian would be permitted to see his father only one weekend in four.) Elian would face atrocious living conditions in Cuba's state-controlled economy; milk is rationed--no one over the age of six is allowed any--and the family meat ration for a month is six ounces. Elian would be denied the most fundamental freedoms-Cuba denies not only the freedom to speak but also the freedom to listen. Tuning in to American radio broadcasts, for example, is outlawed as counter-revolutionary treason. And Elian would be taught that his mother-who died trying to save his life-was a traitor.'

The dangerous premise revealed by Keyes is not that "family rights" override communism, but that parental rights supercede individual rights. The opposite is true. There can be no rights of any kind unless the individual is free to think and act accordingly, which is precisely what he may not do in Cuba's totalitarian state. The right of a parent is the right to act as a guardian: to make decisions in the child's best interest. But parental rights are not an unlimited sanction for any parental act. They do not include the right to force a child into the involuntary servitude of a dictatorship. If a parent wishes to abuse his child in this manner, decent people may intervene to protect the child's right to his life. Child abuse is exactly what Elian would receive in Cuba--not from his father, but from the officially sanctioned actions of the state.'

Elian's future is in the hands of President Clinton--for ill or for good.'

Ample precedent exists for allowing Elian to stay. Walter Polovchak was 12 years old in 1980 when he and his father, both citizens of the former Soviet Union, visited the United States. Polovchak ran away from his father and fought for six years for the right to stay in America. Before he reached the age of 18, effectively ending the legal struggle, a judge had ruled that children, no less than parents, have the right to live free from persecution. Elian, too, has that right.'

If Elian is allowed to stay, it may be possible to force a review of our entire immigration policy. America, once a haven for seekers of freedom, now shuns refugees from dictatorships around the world (most notably Cuba and China), who--like Elian and his mother--risk their lives to win their liberty.'

Whether Juan Gonzalez is as loving and devoted a father as Cuban propaganda would have us believe is irrelevant to deciding Elian's future. Life in Cuba is life in a giant tropical prison camp. Sending Elian back to serve the rest of his life as an inmate would be a terrible act of injustice--and a violation of Elian's right to his own life.



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