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Wading through rough waters

For the past 40 years, Arnaldo and Gloria Rodriguez, owners of the Arlington, Va., Cuban restaurant "La Cantanita," have seen their family and friends leave Cuba and Fidel Castro's regime.

One of Arnaldo's employees ran through a minefield at age 17 to escape.

"The boy in front of him had his leg blown off," he said.

Arnaldo and Gloria are two of many Cuban Americans who think Elián Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy thrown into a politically-charged custody battle between the United States and Cuba, belongs in the U.S.

"I'm the first one to say that a father should be with his son. But in Cuba they passed a law saying that the people are the property of the government," said Gloria, who was born in the U.S. to Cuban immigrant parents.

"If the people in Cuba are dying in the waters trying to get across, it's because something is wrong over there," Arnaldo said.

A substantial number of Americans are in favor of returning Elián to Cuba, but nearly 90 percent of Cuban Americans favor keeping Elián in the U.S., said Larry J. Sabato, University government and foreign affairs professor.

According to an April 19 Newsweek poll, 53 percent Americans believe that Elian should be returned to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who said he plans to take his son back with him to Cuba.

But the much-publicized case took a significant turn yesterday when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a temporary injunction barring anyone from attempting to remove Elián from the U.S.

After the court's decision, Cuban Americans celebrated outside Elián's relatives' home in Little Havana, Miami.

"The father should think what is best for his son, not what is best for him," Arnaldo said. "Do I want my son to be taught to be a revolutionary, or do I want him to be in a free country, go to a university, where he can read anything he wants?"

Arnaldo immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12 years old and has been active in the Cuban-American community.

"We here think about what would happen to us in this country, but you have to put yourself in a communist dictatorship country," he said. "Kids in school in second grade are taught how to throw a grenade against the U.S. They do calisthenics with a rifle. We don't want to believe that."

University Spanish Prof. Ricardo Padron, the son of a Cuban immigrant, said he understands many Cuban Americans have strong beliefs about conditions in their native country.

"For them, it's very much a black and white issue: The U.S. is the land of opportunity; Cuba is the land of tyranny," Padron said.

Padron's father left Cuba after recognizing that Castro was beginning a regime where "political liberties were being seriously curtailed."

The experience of being exiled, he added, inevitably has colored Cuban Americans' perspectives.

"There's a lot of pain of loss and betrayal which dictates that any issue dealing with Cuba be dealt with in a certain way," Padron said.

Like many Cuban Americans, the Rodriquezes stay in close contact with family members who remain in Cuba.

"As we speak [my husband's] brother wants to come to the U.S. - and his niece," Gloria said.

She said she has difficulty speaking about her relatives' opinions on Elián's situation because they are limited in how much they can discuss.

"The phone is monitored," she added. "You have to be careful about what you say. It would jeopardize their lives."

Similarly, the Rodriquezes worry that Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elián's father, is not free to express himself candidly.

"This man may be here but he's certainly not free to speak. He is not free here. He's staying with a Communist head," Gloria said.

Andrew Kauders, press secretary to Congressman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a Cuban American representing the second largest Cuban community in the U.S. next to Miami, said he agrees that Gonzalez is not free to speak his mind.

"His family back in Cuba will be directly affected by the decision he makes," Kauders said.

Menendez introduced legislation which, if passed, would have granted permanent resident status for Elián and made the issue of his custody a matter for the U.S. courts to decide.

"The best interest of the child is for the family court to make this decision. We still feel that a court can make a better decision than an administrative agency," Kauders said, speaking of the Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Some believe Elián's role as a national political symbol would earn him privileged status upon his return to Cuba, but Gloria disagreed.

"Is it privileged to never be able to speak freely, never to be able to have a religion? I call that being incarcerated," she said.

Acknowledging that Elián probably would have greater material wealth than the average Cuban, Gloria expressed doubt about its ultimate value.

"True freedom is the most precious thing. People die for freedom, people don't die for better clothing," she said.

Gloria Rodriguez said the Cuban-American community is concerned they are being perceived as irrational and out of control over the Elián situation.

"The feeling is that the U.S. thinks we're an emotional, crazy bunch," Gloria said.

First-year College student Ubaldo M. Fernandez-Barrera, a University student with a Cuban grandfather, worries that this passionate nature is obscuring a second viewpoint.

"What many people do not know is that in Miami, the Cuban community is divided. Some think that Elián should return to Cuba but keep it to themselves because they are afraid of how the passionate side, that wants Elián to stay, might react," Fernandez-Barrera said.

Jaqueline Stevens, press secretary to Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a Cuban American representing Florida's 21st district, disagreed with the notion that protest surrounding Elián's transfer from his uncle's Miami home to his father's custody necessarily spells violence.

"There is a difference between civil disobedience and violence. This is a community that has never rioted - they're not going to," Stevens said.

She emphasized the importance Cuban Americans attach to making their voice heard.

"This is also a community that understands what it's like not to have First Amendment rights. We will always tell the community to do what is in their legal right and civil disobedience is," Stevens said.

But according to Gloria Rodriguez, their voice is being misread.

"I don't think anybody's really getting the Cuban side of it because the Cubans are so passionate they're getting only emotion and not so much the reason why," she said.

For Arnaldo Rodriguez, the key to Elián's future in America is in the public seeing the little boy from the Cuban American's perspective.

"American people are very smart people, but we have to wake up sometimes. We can't just think everything's fine. We have to see the other side of the coin," he said.

Fernandez-Barrera agreed. "The reality is that what these people have experienced in Cuba is very different from the American reality; they fled their country because they were going through difficult times," he said.

But like Padron, he sympathizes with the Cuban-American community but does not share their assessment of Elián's situation. Both men are in favor of Elián's return to his father in Cuba.

Regardless of which side is speaking, the welfare of this boy from Cuba is at the forefront of everyone's mind.

"The tragedy here is that there are no possible outcomes that fully serve the interests of the child," Padron said.

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