I once went fly fishing up in the Aberdare Range of Kenya--trying to cast a delicate fly down quietly upon the surface of the stream while at the same time watching over my shoulder for the lions that liked to pick off little animals watering there. I didn't catch any fish. I didn't get eaten either.
The Elian Gonzalez case has been like that--two mutually contradictory games played simultaneously. The fly-fishing part involves the father, the son, the family, the boy's welfare. But the lions--Fidel Castro and the exiles in Miami--are up to another sport entirely: carnivorous politics. The problem is this: How to square a satisfying political solution (much better to keep the boy in the U.S., especially since his mother died trying to get him there) with the commonsense human (and legal) solution--that the boy belongs with his father?
Something's got to give. It's disturbing how blithely some Americans have resolved the dilemma by dismissing, even denigrating the father--and even the role of fathers. If it had been Juan Miguel Gonzalez who had died in the Straits of Florida and the mother who waited back in Cuba, Elian would have been sent back to her immediately, on the premise that the mother-child bond trumps politics. It's natural. But the father...that's different. In the postfeminist tabloid subconscious of America, fathers are problematic figures with bad track records--a certain smudge of anger and potential violence in them, untrustworthy, given to rotten behavior, if not now, then later. And, by association, this particular dad morphs vaguely into a bearded Stalinist dictator.
I am not talking merely about a violation of "the father's rights." That's a legalism that assumes Juan Miguel Gonzalez to be as selfish, as narcissistic as most Americans have become in asserting their "rights." I am speaking of something deeper, more basic, more humanly essential--the father's love, his connection with his son. If the boy has a basic right, it is the right to his father.
Americans have grown stupid and confused about the meaning of fatherhood. That stupidity is the reason, in this case, that mere politics has been allowed so casually to override what should be a reflexive respect for the father's place in the picture. Such respect has vanished in the incomplete American transition out of, er, patriarchy. Americans operate as if fathers were secondary and essentially dispensable. The destruction wrought by that premise is strewn about the landscape--in the form of crime, drugs, suicide, family misery.
I keep wondering how much Elian knows about all this, how much he understands. Does he really believe his mother is still alive? When he grows up, what will he be like? Will he be sane?
It's hard to avoid conjuring in the mind alternate Elians, as if they were twins separated by different fates, one of them gone to grow up (fatherless) in America and the other returned to Cuba--and to all that may mean.
There is no good solution, only the better of two bad ones--the preferable outcome in a case of private lives torn apart by politics. Best, of course, if the son and the father's new family could come to settle in America. Or better still: live in a Cuba without Castro or communism. That day will come, though no one is holding his breath.