April 22nd is a dark day in Cuban American history. On this day in 2000, Clinton and Janet Reno sent heavily armed agents to storm a family home in Miami and kidnapped a small child, all to appease the Cuban dictatorship.
April 22nd, 2000: It was an early Sunday morning twelve years ago today when I was awakened by a phone call. On the other line was my sobbing sister telling me to turn on the television, that they had taken Elian. I ran downstairs, put on the news, and the first image I saw was the photograph above: A horrified Elian Gonzalez staring down the barrel of an assault rifle held by a terrifying masked man who had just violently burst into his bedroom in the predawn darkness.
A few minutes later, my daughter, who was about the same age as Elian at the time, awoke and came down to join me on the couch. She climbed up on my lap and I gave her a kiss, holding her close to me as I held back the tears. Moments later, when her grogginess dissipated, she glanced at the television and the image of Elian with a gun pointed at him reappeared on the screen. I wanted to cover her eyes, distract her from this horrible atrocity that no person, much less a child, should ever have to lay eyes upon, especially Elian. But I was too late. She looked at the image and then looked back at me with fear in her eyes.
“Papi, why is that man pointing a gun at Elian?” she asked.
I could not answer her question, at least not in terms she could understand. How do you explain to a six year old that the president of the United States has just broken the law and authorized a violent raid on a family’s home with armed men in order to kidnap a small boy and appease a brutal dictator? How can a small child understand that they are perhaps witnessing one of the most abhorrent acts in modern history carried out by a U.S. president? How can my daughter, or Elian, understand that the long arm of the vile Castro dictatorship can reach into the freest nation in the world and carry out the same type of violent raids that take place in Cuba? They cannot. And the truth is that neither can many adults, including myself, understand.
The image above has been seared into my mind ever since that fateful morning. So one can only imagine how that morning must replay itself in Elian’s mind. How he must see the barrel of that gun in his dreams, the eyes of a soldier staring at him, ready to end his life with the simple squeeze of a trigger. Nevertheless, the images of that morning, if they indeed haunt his dreams, are no doubt a reprieve from the memories of watching his mother drown in the Florida Straits. The image of a soldier pointing a loaded assault rifle at his face is sadly preferable to the image of his mother disappearing beneath the waves for the last time, never to be seen again.
Elian’s mother, Elizabeth Brotons, risked it all and ultimately gave her life so her young son could grow up in freedom. But her sacrifice, her life, her death, were not enough for President Clinton. Instead, he and Attorney General Janet Reno decided that appeasing a ruthless and murdering dictator was worth more than the life of Elizabeth, and certainly worth more than Elian’s freedom.
Twelve years ago, a despotic dictatorship from an island in the Caribbean showed the world just how much power it can wield. With little to no economic influence and no military might whatsoever, the Castro dictatorship was able to exert enough pressure on the U.S. government to induce it to not only break its own laws, but also deprive a young boy the right to grow up to be a free man, not a slave of a vile and criminal regime. From ninety miles away, a tinpot dictator manipulated and forced the leader of the most powerful nation in the world to forsake the country’s own principles and condemn a boy to life on an island prison. This is something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you they do not understand why we should pay so much attention to Cuba.
Even after twelve years, we still weep for Elian. The pain is still there, the wound is still raw. Every day we remember Elian in one way or another, and every day a tear somewhere is shed for the injustice he and his mother were forced to suffer. And speaking of his mother, twelve years later, I am sure she is still weeping for him from heaven.