Berkeleyan Masthead HomeSearchArchive

This Week's Stories

Special Insert: Tidal Wave II - Higher education faces flood of students

Campus Unveils Plans for Southside

Panel Suggests Regents Revamp Outreach Programs In Light of Budget Increase

Child Welfare, U.S.-Cuba Policy Issues Cloud Elian Gonzalez' Future

Cowans Share Findings of Parenting Research

Business Plan Competition Couples Students With Silicon Valley Companies

Berkeley Archaeologist Rebuilds Greek Temple in Ancient Nemea

Regular Features


Campus Calendar


News Briefs




Stormy Weather: Child Welfare, U.S.-Cuba Policy Issues Cloud Elian Gonzalez' Future

By Cathy Cockrel, Public Affairs
Posted January 26, 2000

The irony of surviving a tragedy at sea only to be caught in a political hurricane is one of the few things most agree on in the controversial case of six-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez.

More than two months after his rescue off the coast of Florida, the storm rages on. Heads of state, high officials and demonstrators in the streets of Havana and Miami have all weighed in as to whether the boy should remain with his relatives in Florida or be returned to his father and grandparents in Cuba.

The only voice missing is Elian's, notes Professor of Social Welfare Mary Ann Mason, an expert on children and the law and author of "The Custody Wars: Why Children Are Losing the Legal Battles."

Adults do "lots of warring" over custody, she says. And in an alarming number of cases, the children themselves have no voice. "There's a fear of actually talking to the child," Mason says.

Elian is one of approximately 4,000 unaccompanied children the INS handles annually, the Associated Press reported recently. Unlike Elian, most are rapidly deported. That contrast, and celebrity status, make Elian an anomaly.

But in the failure to let the child speak for himself, his case is the rule rather than the exception, Mason says. "It's a farce [to say] that the father speaks for the child."

Mason supports the use of child advocates, in addition to child lawyers, to help resolve child custody disputes.

Even with a six-year old, she says, it is possible for a neutral advocate, "trained to talk to children," to find out where the child's affections lie in order to help determine what arrangement would serve the best interests of the child. "By the age of 12 or 13," she says, "the child is old enough to have the tie-breaking vote."

What children need at particular developmental stages, and which adults have actually parented the child, should also be taken into account, says Mason.

In Elian's case, "it is fairly clear that the father provided parenting," she notes, while his Florida relatives did not. The father's role as caregiver should hold more sway, she says, than "the romantic notion that the mother gave her life."

A "Monster" We Created

The dramatic stalemate over custody of Elian is also a testament to "the tragedy of U.S. policy toward Cuba," says Andres Jimenez, director of the California Policy Research Center, a UC Office of the President project based in Berkeley. "It reflects the outmoded nature of U.S. policy toward Cuba."

After Fidel Castro came to power, the United States ended diplomatic relations with the island and imposed a ban on trade and travel that is still in effect today.

The U.S. Cuban community is not monolithic in its attitudes toward the Castro government or the embargo, Jimenez notes. Many favor an end to the four-decade old freeze. But U.S. foreign policy on Cuba is being "held hostage" to the militantly anti-Castro sector of the community. And that community, he says, is "a monster our own government created."

According to Jimenez, documents released through the Freedom of Information Act show that the United States has purposefully offered "a whole series of special incentives" -- from fast-track citizenship to economic supports and bilingual education -- in order to create a Spanish-speaking elite among Cuban exiles. If and when Castro were overthrown, the logic goes, this elite government-in-waiting would be ready to assume leadership of Cuba.

The current impasse, in which the anti-Castro Cuban community has played a leading part, should therefore come as no surprise, says Jimenez.

Recently, restrictions on academic and artistic exchange with Cuba have relaxed slightly, and more U.S. citizens, despite the travel ban, are visiting Cuba through a third country.

"Anti-Castro Cubans are concerned in particular about any thawing of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba," Jimenez notes. "They also want to influence the U.S. presidential elections."

On the Cuban side, the custody crisis is "a way of renewing the political energy of the Revolution," says Jimenez. Championing the boy's repatriation "allows the government to broaden its support," with the message that it is protecting the national interests of the country -- in this case, the interests of a Cuban family.



January 26 - February 1, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 19)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail