The northbound Auto Train from Florida was four hours late, so we
found ourselves on the back lawn of a serious biker bar in Sanford
listening to a rock ‘n’ roll band playing “Two Tickets to Paradise” in
the afternoon sun. “Caution: Does not play well with others” read the
T-shirt on the guy sitting next to us. Where better than South Florida
to learn about freedom and subgroups in America?

Earlier in the week, the Cuban exile community in Little Havana, a
place where people still talk about freedom like they really mean it,
took to the streets in an attempt to shut down Miami International and
the Port of Miami over the fate of Elian Gonzales, the six-year-old boy
who was found clinging to an inner tube surrounded by dolphins in the
waters three miles off Fort
Lauderdale on Thanksgiving Day.

What at first looked like a routine custody case quickly escalated
into an international tug of war when the D.C. Immigration and
Naturalization Service ruled that Elian must be returned to his father
in Cuba. Miami’s Cuban exile community framed the problem as a freedom
issue, a case of a child being robbed of the freedom his mother was
willing to lose her life to provide. “Mom will have died in vain” read
the protest signs. Exile leaders said Elian, if necessary, would be
hidden away in safe houses.

The Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana is the place to go to talk
to the Cuban exile community. On the morning after the tear-gassing and
arrest of some 200 demonstrators, the restaurant’s patio and parking lot
were filled with people waving their arms and talking in Spanish and
English about Elian. “I was in Castro’s militia at the age of 14,”
Benito Garcia, a former city editor at el Nuevo Herald, told us. “My
father was a doctor who treated Castro’s revolutionaries in the hills.
He opposed Batista’s military dictatorship but soon saw that things were
going to be the same with Castro. The turning point came when one day he
was ordered to appear at a meeting. He refused, telling them he was not
in uniform, that he didn’t take orders from the military. Instead, he
went back to what he wanted to do … saving his patients.”

“Shortly after, we came to Miami, the year of the Bay of Pigs, 1961,”
he explains. “It’s a question of opportunity for Elian,” Garcia
contends, pointing to the successful Cuban businesses all around. “The
owner of Versailles came here in the ’60s with nothing. He had grocery
stores in Cuba. Everything was confiscated. Now he has over 30
restaurants and hotels in Miami. It was that way in Cuba before Castro.
It was not a paradise but you could pull yourself up from nothing.
Today, it is a country of hate, with neighbors spying on each other for
the government. Castro is a murderer.”

The toll? “By conservative estimates, 40,000 Cubans have died at sea
trying to escape over the past 40 years,” says Garcia. “You see the
parts of the rafts floating. Another 20,000 have been killed by firing
squads or died in prison for political crimes.”

As we’re talking, a van with two loudspeakers mounted on the roof and
flying Cuban flags pulls into the parking lot. The driver, Juan Ramon
Garcia, begins handing out “Salvemos A Elian!” bumper stickers (“Let’s
Save Elian!”) and newspapers. The headline reads, “Los ninos nacen para
ser felices” (“Children are born to be happy”).

“I was jailed by Castro when I was 15,” Juan Ramon says. “I was in a
Catholic youth group. They put 3,000 of us in a baseball stadium with
guards with machine guns around the top. We had no food, just one hose
for water. They tried to humiliate us. They made the boys urinate in
front of the nuns. We were taken from there to chicken coops.”

“Elian will have no life in Cuba, no parents,” he continued. “The
government takes control of the children, what they eat and read.
There’s hard labor at age 10. There are no rights. When they allow you
to live they consider it a favor. They own you. Everything is for the
revolution. The red scarf on the children says you belong to the state.”

Castro, of course, sees it differently. Holding Elian in Miami is
“kidnapping,” a plot by the “Cuban-American Mafia and the right wing in
the U.S. Congress” to violate international law. At a state-sponsored
rally in Havana, a 10-year-old girl was brought on stage to warn the
crowd that Elian would become a drug addict if he stayed in Miami.

At the University of Florida, Cuban-born law professor Berta
Esperanzi Hernandez-Truyoe maintains that the issue has moved beyond a
custody battle to a much broader question: “Should a child live in
Cuba?” The Hague international family law convention established that a
child should be returned to his “habitual” country of residence unless
showing can be made that there is a “grave risk” of physical or
psychological harm. For the Cuban exiles who gather at Versailles,
that’s exactly the case. Every child, they say, is at risk in Cuba.

“I’m a veteran of the U.S. Navy and I’ll return my honorable
discharge papers to Clinton if he sends Elian back,” says Eloy Cepero,
54, a Cuban exile. “It will mean no freedom exists. Cuba is a place
where people turn in their neighbors, where children turn in their

It’s a different story at the Bar Out Back where the customers don’t
have neighborhood investigations, and even brag that few know each
other’s names. “I’ve known some of these people for 20 years and still
don’t know their names,” says Bar Out Back’s owner Johnny Rotton. “These
two I’m sitting with, I just know them by Bear and Karma.”

Ralph R. Reiland and Sarah J.
are the authors of “Mom & Pop vs. the
Dreambusters: The Small Business Revolt Against Big Government.”

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.