Havana's Hostages
Fidel Castro divides Cuban families.

The Wall Street Journal, Monday, January 31, 2000

MIAMI--No aspect of the Elian Gonzalez debate is more galling than the way Fidel Castro and his U.S. supporters have posed as champions of family unity. Havana routinely divides families by preventing children in Cuba from joining their parents in America, with nary an objection from the National Council of Churches and its allies in the fight for Elian's deportation.

There are no official statistics on the number of separated families; Cuban-American leaders here offer estimates ranging from hundreds to thousands. Many stateside family members hesitate to go public for fear of retaliation against kin in Cuba. But in three weeks, a new group called Mission Elian has documented 32 such cases. In some, children in Cuba are separated from both parents in America.

Typical is the story of Jose Cohen, the 35-year-old owner of an e-commerce company here. He had worked in Cuba's foreign-investment office, entertaining guests from abroad. Visitors told him about the outside world and whetted his appetite for freedom. So in August 1994 he, his brother Isaac and two other men crowded into a tiny two-seat motorized raft for a three-day voyage to America. Mr. Cohen left behind his wife, Lazara Brito Cohen, and his children, stepdaughter Yanelis, now 15, daughter Yamila, 11, and son Isaac, eight.

When Mr. Cohen became a U.S. resident in April 1996, he applied for and was granted U.S. visas for his family. Mrs. Cohen applied to the Cuban government for exit visas. Hearing nothing for a year, she began sending letters to Cuban officials, from Fidel Castro on down. Mr. Cohen produces a sheaf of photocopied responses on Cuban government letterhead, each informing his wife that her case is being referred to another agency. Mr. Cohen says even the evasive answers have stopped since Mr. Castro made Elian's case a cause célèbre.

Mrs. Cohen's experience can't be chalked up to mere bureaucratic inefficiency. When she tried to enroll Yanelis in high school in 1998, the school director told her that teens with foreign immigration visas are not permitted to study beyond junior high. Mrs. Cohen also has received menacing unsigned notes slipped under her front door. "Forget about leaving Cuba. You will never leave Cuba," one said. Declared another: "Your husband has a wife in the U.S." She once showed one of the notes to a bureaucrat at the immigration office. He read it and smiled.

Another time, a man with a government ID card appeared at Mrs. Cohen's door. "We want to help you," he said--and then tried to seduce her. She rebuffed his advances and threw him out.

"Every time we see the hope of living like every other family, it's not in the near future," Mr. Cohen says. "My wife and three children are hostages of the regime."

Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilera, a 42-year-old motivational speaker who heads Mission Elian, grew up in a family divided by Fidel Castro. She was a baby when her parents moved to the U.S. in 1959, taking her and her teen brother with them. Her father later returned to Cuba, where he wrote to her brother, who had stayed behind in America, asking him to apply for a visa waiver to speed his return to the U.S.

He mentioned in the letter that he didn't intend to join the local Communist Party cell, known as a block party. For this he was charged with "counterrevolutionary activities" and imprisoned for 14 years. Ms. Rodriguez-Aguilera didn't see him until he came back to the U.S. when she was 17. His many years as a political prisoner had broken his spirit. "Even though he was out of prison, his mind was still in prison," she says. He died in 1988.

Sometimes the Castro government boasts to families that they are being held hostage. In 1991 Maj. Orestes Lorenzo, a fighter pilot in the Cuban air force, flew his MiG-27 to the Boca Chica Naval Air Station in the Florida Keys, where he defected. He left behind his wife and two young sons. They were summoned to the office of Gen. Raul Castro, the dictator's brother, and told they would never be allowed to leave Cuba. "He has to return," Gen. Castro said. Two years later Mr. Lorenzo did just that. In a daring rescue, he flew a private plane to Cuba and landed on a road outside Havana, where his family was waiting.

Havana's practice of taking families hostage shouldn't surprise us. It is part and parcel of a totalitarian ideology enshrined in laws giving the state limitless power over the most intimate aspects of the lives of Cubans--including children. Article 5 of Cuba's Code of the Child, enacted in 1978, stipulates that anyone who comes in contact with a child must contribute to "the development of his communist personality." Article 8 calls for "efficient protection of youth against all influences contrary to their communist formation." Many Cubans here tell stories similar to that of Miami architect Ricardo Fernandez. His cousin in Cuba was summoned to meet her daughter's teacher, who demanded to know why she was sending the girl to church.

To develop the "communist personality," Havana harnesses that most potent influence: peer pressure. Mr. Cohen says Yamila, his 11-year-old daughter, was hustled with her classmates onto a bus earlier this month for an impromptu field trip. Destination: the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, where the children were told to join a rally demanding Elian's return. On the phone later, Mr. Cohen asked Yamila why she had gone along with the order. "I was very nervous about what the rest of the children would say," she told him.

This is the society to which the Clinton administration is trying to repatriate Elian--a society in which the government demands ideological purity even from six-year-olds. How can this be in any child's best interest?

Havana's efforts at thought control work. The image of a mental prison recurs often in conversations with Cuban immigrants here. They talk about wearing la máscara--the mask--to hide their true feelings. They describe a process of self-censorship in which they don't allow themselves even to think certain things, lest a counterrevolutionary sentiment slip out in an unguarded moment. Since the government controls the economy, unemployment is among the risks for those who deviate. Mr. Cohen says his brother David, once a physician at a Havana clinic, was fired for wearing a Star of David necklace. The Cuban government has also blocked David Cohen's effort to emigrate to the Dominican Republic.

It is in this context that we must evaluate Elian's father's refusal to come to the U.S. for a reunion with his son. He may well be a hostage, wearing la máscara and reading a government script. Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, the nun who oversaw last week's reunion between Elian and his grandmothers, has said she sensed at the meeting that the women were being manipulated by the Cuban government. On Thursday Sister O'Laughlin issued a statement saying the meeting had changed her mind: She now believes Elian should stay.

Gen. Rafael del Pino, who was the No. 2 man in the Cuban Defense Ministry when he defected to the U.S. in 1987, knows what it's like to have a custody dispute with the Cuban government. He escaped on a small plane and brought his wife, their two children and a teenage son by his previous marriage. His former wife later appeared on Cuban television and before the National Assembly, Cuba's one-party legislature, accusing her ex-husband of kidnapping and demanding her son's return.

But in 1995 she herself escaped on a raft. Mr. del Pino says she told him her complaints had been coerced by Havana. Reached by phone at her home in North Carolina, she refuses to say, pointing out that her mother and daughter remain in Cuba.

This story leads Mr. Lorenzo, who made his own freedom flight four years after the general's, to speculate: What if, like Mr. del Pino's ex-wife, Elian's father eventually decides to escape? "I wonder if we'll find that the father left the island with Elian, and they all died at sea," Mr. Lorenzo says. "Who are we going to blame for that?"

Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal Europe contributed to this article.

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