Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



The saga of Elian Gonzalez, whether he will be returned to Cuba or granted asylum, cannot reasonably be divorced from our memories of what Fidel Castro's communist government has done to the Cuban people, and to its neighbors, during the past forty years.

Recall this startling piece of Cold War history.

In October 1962 President John Kennedy stunned the American people when he announced in a TV address that Soviet missiles had been surreptitiously installed in Cuba and would within days threaten American cities in the eastern half of the country.

Kennedy sent troops to Florida, placed B-52 bombers on alert, and assembled a powerful naval force in the Caribbean to prepare for an invasion of Cuba and eliminate those missiles before they were ready for launching.

Castro had secretly participated with Nikita Khrushchev in this dangerous operation and was outraged when the Soviet leader accepted a deal with Kennedy to remove the missiles in exchange for a U.S. pledge not to invade Cuba. In the end Castro relented and for nearly thirty years remained a compliant ally until the Soviet Union collapsed.

A second example of Castro's alliance with Moscow occurred in Central America in 1980 when he conspired with the Russians to overthrow the government of El Salvador. He sent thousands of Cuban military and police to Nicaragua, with the complicity of Daniel Ortega's new communist government, and trained a guerrilla force to seize power in El Salvador. Castro was forced to give up this operation when both El Salvador and Nicaragua elected noncommunist governments and Moscow cut off the flow of arms and advisers.

A third case was Grenada, a strategically located island in the Caribbean where Castro and the Russians were building an air base capable of accommodating the largest Soviet bombers and transports. When President Reagan sent troops in 1983 to rescue hundreds of American students who were in danger of being taken hostage, Cuban military personnel disguised as construction workers were captured after a fire-fight and sent home. Documents collected in Grenada revealed that Moscow and Havana planned to turn Grenada into a strategic base.

What does this history have to do with little Elian Gonzalez?

It raises two important questions regarding Cuban-American relations: First, is Castro's Cuba the place where a small child should be forced to spend his life if there is the alternative of remaining in the United States? Second, is Fidel Castro's Cuba now a good neighbor, or a potential threat to its neighbors, including the United States?

On the first question, Cuba remains an impoverished Communist tyranny run by an aging dictator who no doubt believes that Cubans are better off living in a tightly-controlled state than they would be in a democratic country with a free market economy. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of Cubans want to leave that country, as Elian's mother did, and start new lives in the United States. Should Elian be forced to return to that kind of country?

On whether Castro's regime is now peace-loving or a continuing threat to its neighbors, many Americans think that Washington should accept the fact that this old man no longer poses a threat to anyone outside Cuba. They argue that after Moscow cut off its aid in 1990, Castro has behaved and tried to build diplomatic relations abroad, even welcoming the pope to Cuba. One the other hand, what happens if a another Russian government decides again to compete for world influence? Would Fidel Castro turn his country once more into a military and intelligence base for operations in the Caribbean, and against the United States?

I find it puzzling that those Americans who are determined to force the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and protest vigorously against the human rights violations in China, have no apparent qualms about urging a "live and let live" policy toward Castro's Cuba, one more ruthless police state.

As for the case of Elian, the Justice Department and the Immigration Service seem determined that regardless of the political conditions in Cuba, this youngster must return there with his father because his mother, who fled with him to the United States, died in her attempt. These U.S. agencies have so far refused to permit Elian's case to be argued in a court where the interests of the child, not just his father, are taken into account. At what age should a child in this situation be permitted to speak for himself?

One cannot help but speculate that a major reason the U.S. government wants to send the Elian back is that it fears that otherwise Fidel Castro will turn loose tens of thousands of Cuban "boat people," as he did in the 1980s, and flood the United States with refugees, including criminals, during our election year. He remembers that the influx of thousands of Haitian boat people to Florida in 1993 persuaded the White House to take forcible action to return Bertrand Aristide to power and keep the refugees at home. Perhaps, Castro calculates, a little extortion will get the hated U.S. sanctions on Cuba removed.

It would be a tragedy if Elian Gonzalez is forced to return to Cuba and becomes a "poster child" for Castro's propaganda machine to show that he was kidnapped and held in Miami for five months, until rescued from a "terrible fate" at the hands of renegade Cubans living there.

Is this the legacy that Americans want to remember about little Elian Gonzalez?

File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST

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