Watching a CNN special on Elian Gonzales I was struck that for many people their political views are often more the result of the imprinting they received when they were young than what they chose to believe as adults. I’m sure that you know the story of the five year old boy who was found alone in the water 60 miles off the coast of Florida clinging to an inner tube. His mother, Elizabeth Rodríguez and her boyfriend were attempting to leave Cuba with Elian to escape to the United States when their aluminum boat sank in a storm. Elian’s mother and eleven other people on board drowned. Elian was rescued by fisherman and was placed with relatives who had previously escaped Cuba and were living in the Cuban exile community in Miami.
Elian’s mother and father had divorced some years before. However the child had spent most of his early years with his father, Juan González, who eventually remarried and had another small child with his new wife at the time of the incident. His ex-wife had taken the child with her when she left Cuba without his knowledge. González wanted Elian back and was willing to fight to make that happen. He was a member of the Cuban Communist Party, had a good job, and had no desire to immigrate to the United States, so instead he enlisted the help of the Cuban government.
Fidel Castro, seeing an opportunity to rally the Cuban people behind him and punish the Cuban refugees in the US, took up the cause to have Elian returned to his father in Cuba. He rallied the Cuban people to the support González in his efforts to get his son back. Huge protest marches were organized in Havana. Elian’s relatives and other Cubans in Miami also took to the streets to keep Elian in the United States. They had the backing of the politically powerful Cuban American Foundation. For seven months the international custody battle was covered continually on the national news in both countries and around the world. The battle loomed larger than the fate of one small boy; it became angry standoff between the Cuban population in Miami and the regime they hated in Cuba.
The situation devolved into an international incident and a lengthy legal fight ensued. A US District Court turned down the extended family’s claims and, with Elian’s mother deceased, ruled that only Elian’s father could petition for asylum in the US for Elian. That was something Juan González refused to do. After the Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling and the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the matter was legally settled. However, Elian’s relatives still refused to turn Elian over to his father who had flown to the US to take him back to Cuba. Eventually federal agents took Elian away from his relatives and father and son boarded a plane and returned to their island home
Elian was raised as a child of the Cuban revolution and the Cuban government treated him as a national treasure. Fidel often attended his birthday parties. Elian was also a prominent guest of Fidel at national events. Under his father’s guidance and the influence of the Cuban government, Elian joined the Young Communist League. Now 23 years old and having graduated from college with an engineering degree, there is still no doubt where his allegiances lie.
Interviewed while attending youth conference in Ecuador in 2013 he blamed his mother’s death on the country she lost her life trying to reach. “Just like her, many others have died attempting to go to the United States, but it’s the U.S. government’s fault. Their unjust embargo provokes an internal and critical economic situation in Cuba.” Elian regarded Fidel Castro as a “second father”. When Castro died, he tearfully said, “Fidel will be become a mystical being that everyone will come to worship.” Interviewed recently for the CNN documentary, it was clear the Elian is still a very strong supporter of the Cuban government. He also said that he would like to reconcile with his relatives in Miami, but only if they admitted that they were wrong to try to force him to stay in the US.
However, I know that Elian would have had a much different outlook had he been raised by his relatives in the United States. While in Miami, he was in the temporary custody of Lázaro González, his great uncle. Lázaro and his brother Delfin lead the movement to allow Elian to stay in the US. Before fleeing Cuba, both had been imprisoned by the Castro regime for their political activities. Like most of the Cuban exiles living in Miami, they detested the Castro and his communist government. Marisleysis González, Lázaro’s 21 year old daughter who served has Elian’s surrogate mother while he was in the US, and who would have probably become his legal guardian had he been allowed to stay, shared her father’s views. I doubt seriously if Elian would have joined the Young Communist League or come to adore Fidel Castro under her care and his great uncles’ influences.
We are all to a greater or lesser extent a products of our upbringing. Of course our political views are more than just the sum our parents’ beliefs. They weren’t after all the only influences in our lives as we matured. The more we are exposed to a world beyond that of our parents and the narrow world around us, the room there is for change. However, in my experience, it is a bit unusual for individuals whose parents were stout conservatives to evolve into open hearted liberals, or visa versa. The changes are more likely to be incremental in nature.
Living as I do in Alabama, in the heart of the Deep South, I see evidence of these incremental changes in my friends and acquaintances, particularly in their tolerance towards all of their fellow human beings. It is hard to believe that was their grandparents here in the Birmingham area that elected Bull Connors as their Sheriff, the same Bull Connors who turned fire hoses and dogs loose on the civil rights marchers. Among my educated friends acquaintances, their grandchildren are still conservatives, but more open minded and much more tolerant than their grandparents, or even their parents, to those who are different themselves. While most of their children may not yet be ready to join the Young Democrats, they grew up with children with different skin colors in their classrooms. On college campuses many seem to be color blind in the selection of their friends.
Among under educated Southerners that I know that I know, not so much. It seems that with less exposure to formal or self education and other points of view, they tend to think and believe more like their parents did. Their beliefs have may have changed as they matured, but in smaller increments than their more worldly counterparts. It little wonder that the segment of the nationwide population that generated the greatest support for Donald Trump were white voters with less than a high school education. Next in line were whites whose education ended with their high school graduation. Like Elian in Cuba who was surrounded during his formative years by the Castro government’s pervasive cocoon even as he obtained an engineering degree, these less educated voters were less exposed to elements outside of their small circles of parents, relatives and friends. Therefore, they were more likely to be prejudice against outsiders, more susceptible to the fears about illegal immigrates coming take their jobs, and more likely to believe lying politicians.
What is sad is that Trump was not the first Republican politician to sell these people a bill of goods, nor is he likely to be the last. Not only in the South, but across the nation people in skilled and unskilled blue collar jobs should be a natural constituency of the Democratic Party, but all too often they vote against their economic self interest. While Trump rails about building a wall, which will never be built, to protect them from illegal immigrates, he also supports legislation that favors the very rich, scuttles their health insurance, and has set about cutting the safety net which would support them if and when tragedy strikes.
The last election illustrated that to be successful we can no longer depend on just on liberal whites and minorities to get us across election finish lines. We need to reach out to another natural Democratic Party constituency, blue collar workers, who lately we have largely ignored. We need to understand where these people are coming from, their fears and their concerns, and how they came to think the way they do. We need develop practical commonsense programs which will help them raise their standard of living and help them develop to their full potential. Most of all we need to convince them that we, unlikely our Republican counterparts, are truly concerned about their well being. Unlike Elian who remains smothered by an ideology not of his own choosing, these are free people who are at least to some extent still capable of evolving. We need to again become positive influences in their lives and enlist them in our causes.