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It is said that the boy, now sixteen, "is a model student, favoring math and Spanish classes. He has been chosen leader of his sixth-grade class . . . . He takes karate lessons and plays ping pong. * * * He . . . keeps a photo of his mother . . . by his bed." Unfortunately, the photo is all he has left with which to remember her—she drowned with ten others while fleeing Cuba. As the world would learn, one of three survivors of that failed escape from communism was eleven year-old Elian Gonzalez.

It was five years ago this month, on the orders of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno, that armed federal agents stormed into a modest home in South Florida, ripped Elian Gonzalez from the care of loving relatives, shoved him into a private jet, and delivered the boy to Castro’s island prison. The Associated Press has just reported that in commemoration of Cuba’s victory in the tug-of-war over Elian’s fate, on April 22, 2005, he "addressed a crowd of thousands . . . thanking Cubans and Americans alike for fighting for his return to the island. * * * ’I want to thank everyone who made my dream of being a free boy come true,’ said Elian, whose speech prompted enthusiastic applause from the crowd."

While the fight for Elian’s freedom in 1999 and 2000 brought out the best in some people, predictably it brought out the worst in others. It coalesced groups of America-haters who hadn’t been so vociferous since they worked for a Communist victory in Vietnam. It revealed the incompetence of the State of Florida, which dropped the ball in not fighting for Elian . It showed the hypocrisy of liberals, who would have fought to prevent an African child from being returned to apartheid South Africa or a Jewish child being returned to Nazi Germany, but demanded Elian’s return to Communist Cuba. It allowed Clinton’s China-loving White House, and its accommodating State Department and handmaiden Justice Department/INS, to crush Elian’s quest for freedom in order to build bridges to Cuba, one of the world’s few remaining communist dictatorships.

Also predictable was a phenomenon I encountered two decades earlier when, with Erika Holzer and Julian Kulas, I represented Walter Polovchak, the young Ukrainian defector who refused to return to the Soviet Union with his émigré parents: many otherwise anti-communist conservatives became so wedded to their version of "family values"— "children belong with their parents," we were repeatedly admonished in the Polovchak case — that they evaded what they knew about Castro’s totalitarian domination of all Cubans, and that in Cuba the boy’s father and his entire family was under the thumb of Communist thugs.

Even though the federal appeals court that sent Elian back to Cuba admitted that it is "a widely-accepted truth, that Cuba does violate human rights and fundamental freedoms and does not guarantee the rule of law to people living in Cuba," that "[n]o one should doubt that, if [Elian] returns to Cuba, he will be without the degree of liberty that people enjoy in the United States," and "that re-education, communist indoctrination, and political manipulation of [Elian] for propaganda purposes, upon a return to Cuba, are not beyond the realm of possibility," still that court sent the boy back to Castro, to the cheers of too many "family values" conservatives.

It has now been five long years since Elian was "reunited" with his grandparents, father and other relatives. How is he doing? A Castro-friendly article by Vanessa Bauza, bylined Cardenas, Cuba, recently reported that Elian has finished psychotherapy "to help him cope with the stress of his ordeal" (read: "reeducation"), "several plainclothes security officers are stationed in front of Elian’s home to keep strangers from getting too close" (read: to prevent interviews with unfriendly journalists), and, in a perverse consequence of that family reunification, "Castro takes a special interest in [Elian’s] schooling." Indeed, Elian’s father – a waiter who somehow was elected to the Communist National Assembly – "is often seen in the front row of government-organized rallies, sometimes accompanied by Elian" (read: propaganda tools). And, as the Associated Press reported yesterday, finally Elian has been trotted out by Castro’s PR machine to laud the Communist dictator and his tyrannical regime.

Even now, five years after his kidnapping, there are several lessons to be drawn from the Elian Gonzalez story. But for those of us who fought the successful battle to save Walter and waged the unsuccessful battle to save Elian, none speaks as loudly as this: Although "family values" are important, and while children usually belong with their parents, a clear line protecting the child must be drawn when, as in Elian’s case, parental custody is inimical to a child’s best interests — a lesson too many conservatives have yet to learn. It was the failure of many conservatives to have learned that lesson that contributed to Elian Gonzalez losing his freedom and becoming a ward of the Cuban state and its dictator, Fidel Castro.