Cute Kid! Cruel Communists! Martyred Mom! A Thanksgiving Miracle!
Any one of these elements can make for the kind of sensational story the U.S. press craves, but the case of Elián González--the 6-year-old boy rescued at sea on November 25, after his mother and 10 others drowned en route from Cuba--has all these ingredients for overwrought journalism.
The result? In the months since the kid with the tragic story and made-for-TV smile first became news, the saga has been a source of often astonishing press coverage. Everyone from politicians to baseball players has rushed to use Elián as a photo op. Television cameras and curious onlookers remain vigilantly positioned outside Elián's Miami relatives' Little Havana home to catch a glimpse of this walking, talking bumper sticker.
The press likes to call it "a complicated story," though it's safe to say that if Elián was from any other country, he would simply be home by now. National and international policies call for the INS to return unaccompanied immigrant children to their biological parents unless the parents are unfit. And, of course, just living in Cuba does not make Juan Miguel González an unfit parent.
Explaining U.S. immigration policy would have helped put Elián's case into perspective, but the vast majority of early stories about the little boy "plucked from the sea" (to use one of the press' favorite descriptions) failed to mention the existence of any regulations. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service records show more than 4,000 unaccompanied minors enter the United States each year. "The vast majority are promptly sent back to their families" (AP, 1/13/00) --including children from undemocratic countries with abysmal records on human rights. So why is Elián still in Miami?
There have been flashes of critical reporting on the Elián González story--most since the January 5 Immigration and Naturalization Service ruling that Elián should be sent back to his father in Cuba. But the bulk of the coverage--particularly in the early days following the boy's rescue--has been marked by media regurgitation of questionable "facts."
His Father or Freedom
The majority of the media melodrama has rested on the notion that Elián faces a tragic life of deprivation if he returns to Cuba. Outlandish statements about the boy's safety and welfare are frequently published without rebuttal. A January 17 Miami Herald story quoted a bystander who was capitalizing on the media circus by selling sun-visors outside Elián's relatives' Miami home: "If he goes back, he will starve to death.... It would be a crime to send him back."
Actually, Elián starving to death seems extremely unlikely. In a rare, clear-eyed look at Elián's family, Time magazine's Joshua Cooper Ramo (1/17/00) pointed out that if returned to Cuba:
But Ramo's story is the exception. Most reporters depended on third-party sources like the sun-visor vendor to describe life in Cuba. One of the more jarring examples of this was found in a December 15 Miami Herald story: "Cuban Moms Tell How Their Kids Grow Up." The story asks, "What would Elián's life be like in Cuba?" but the reporter never spends time with Elián's family. Instead, the article describes a visit to the Havana home of Marielena Garcia, a 31-year-old woman who lives with her husband and three children in a "tiny, two-story apartment that lacks what may in the United States would consider basic amenities: a kitchen sink, a refrigerator and a stove, among other things. She and her husband Miguel, installed the toilet themselves."
Of course, when deprivation-filled households like the Garcias' are described, there is rarely any mention of the fact that Cuba's life expectancy (75.7 years), infant mortality (7 per 100,000) and literacy rate (95.9) are among the best in the hemisphere--people in the United States only live on average one year longer, and our infant mortality is identical (U.N. Development Programme, Human Development Report 1999). And don't expect a discussion of the 40-year-old U.S. embargo and its impact on the country's standard of living.
Dateline NBC's Mike Taibbi (1/17/00) dubbed the controversy "a choice between his father and freedom"--though most American-born kids would find it surprising that freedom means being "showered with gifts from relatives and well-wishers" (AP, 12/ 24/99), receiving "three bicycles" and "a promise of $2 million for staying" (Washington Post, 12/16/99), frequent trips to amusement parks and rubbing shoulders with the likes of magician David Copperfield and Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernandez.
Castro vs. the González Family
The press had a tendency to frame the story as a custody battle between Elián's Miami relatives and Fidel Castro. The New York Times summed up the case this way on December 13: "Elián is at the center of an international custody fight. President Fidel Castro of Cuba has demanded the boy's return, and thousands of Cubans have marched in the streets waving posters of the boy. Elián's father also wants his son back."
A December 4 Times story reported: "If Cuba wants the boy back, it will have to fight for him in a state hearing, like any other party that challenges a child's custody, federal officials said." When a Miami judge awarded temporary custody to Elián's great-uncle, the New York Daily News (1/11/00) front page screamed, "Not So Fast Fidel!"
For U.S. audiences, Castro cuts a much less sympathetic figure than a father who misses his child. But even when Elián's father, Juan Miguel González, was interviewed, there was skepticism that he actually wants his son returned. Questions are often raised as to whether Juan Miguel is simply "a puppet of the Castro government" (New York Times, 12/4/99) who "not only would allow his son to stay but would seek asylum himself" if he "had the freedom to speak his mind." (New York Times, 12/9/99) The assumption is, of course, that Cubans who want to remain in Cuba must be brainwashed by Castro.
She Gave Her Life for Freedom
While Juan Miguel González's state of mind was frequently questioned, Elián's mother, Elizabet Brotons Rodriguez, has been virtually canonized. From the very first accounts, Elián's mother was reported to have "given her life for her child's freedom"--a notion that is used to justify extreme actions, such as Congress considering granting Elián instant U.S. citizenship (Miami Herald, 1/16/00). Most reporters never questioned Brotons' judgment in taking her son across the Florida Straits in a rickety, 17-foot aluminum boat with 12 other people.
But even as it seemed that U.S. coverage of Brotons' fateful journey was headed in only one direction, Dateline NBC correspondent Keith Morrison joined a slowly expanding cluster of journalists seemingly almost exasperated with a hysteria they themselves helped to create. Morrison reported on January 17 that Brotons did not leave Cuba to escape Castro as much as she left to be with her boyfriend Lazaro Munero--the man that orchestrated the journey to Florida.
While Munero has been consistently elevated in status in press reports to the title of "Elián's stepfather," that description is somewhat misleading. While Brotons dated Munero off and on since her divorce in 1997, Munero does not seem to have played a big part in Elián's upbringing. Brotons moved in with Munero only a few months before the couple's departure from Cuba. Friends and family members in Cuba said that after Brotons moved in with Munero, "Elián then began spending most of his time with his father." (Miami Herald, 12/13/99)
Munero, who served three years in jail for cutting off a man's finger during a bar fight (USA Today, 1/24/00), had previous traveled to Florida in 1998, but reportedly grew homesick and returned to Cuba to persuade family and friends, including Brotons, to join him in the States. Even Brotons' mother said she did not believe Elián's freedom was her daughter's motivation for the trip (NBC, 1/12/00). But still, journalists like ABC News's Carole Simpson (ABCNews.com, 1/23/00) stubbornly clung to the more dramatic notion of a mother sacrificing herself for her son's future: "Miraculously, Elián made it to America, his mother's dying wish. There is little doubt that if the boy remains in the United States--depending on his talents, ambition and determination--his opportunities may be boundless."
More accurate may be the assessment of Dateline NBC's Morrison (1/17/00): It was "an affair that had nothing to do with politics.... It's about a woman who followed a man."
Whatever the reality, the Elián González story--the plight of a boy who lost his mother and was separated from his father--has, for too much of the U.S. media, been mostly about anti-Cuban politics.
Lisa Tozzi is a Manhattan-based freelance writer who frequently covers politics and immigration issues.