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Don’t discount grandmothers’ courage

by Cesar Chelala

The reunion of Mariela Quintana and Raquel Rodriguez with their grandson Elian Gonzalez in Miami may be the first step in the eventual return of the Cuban child to his father. If this happens, it will be in no small measure thanks to the tireless efforts of these two heroic women. They may succeed in what politicians (mostly male) have failed to do: making people aware that the right place for Elian to grow up is with his father and grandparents, not with distant relatives. In any event, they deserve to be ranked with another legendary grandmothers’ group: the “Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo” in Argentina.

That group is named after the square in Buenos Aires where, together with the mothers of the “disappeared” children, they continue to demonstrate and demand to know the fate of their grandsons and granddaughters. They do this even though the events took place more than 20 years ago, during Argentina’s brutal military regime, when an estimated 30,000 people were disappeared. Thanks to the grandmothers’ efforts, 64 children have been identified, out of 224 documented cases, and 35 have been reunited with their families.

The Argentine grandmothers have been instrumental not only in the prosecution and sentencing of military leaders responsible for the disappearances. They have also contributed to the development of genetic tests to determine the real identity of the children they found. In response to their efforts, a National Genetic Data Bank was created in Argentina, where blood samples of the close relatives of the disappeared children are kept, to help in their identification. In addition, Article 8 was incorporated in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. That article states in part, “State parties undertake to respect the right of the child to preserve his/her identity including nationality, name and family relatives as recognized by law without unlawful interference.” These conditions clearly apply in Elian’s case.

A task almost as daunting as that of the Argentine grandmothers now faces the Cuban grandmothers. Legislation has been introduced by Republican Sen. Connie Mack of Florida, supported by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, to grant Elian U.S. citizenship. This will take the child from the jurisdiction of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (which has been most sympathetic to the argument that he should return to his father in Cuba) into the jurisdiction of the federal courts. A federal judge has just granted a month’s temporary custody of the child to his Miami relatives. These kind of actions can only delay or stop the boy’s reunion with his immediate family. Both international law and the “law of common sense” dictate that a child already punished by the tragic death of his mother should return to his father and grandparents.