The two grandmothers of Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez made a well-publicized pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. to plead for his return. It was a poignant scene, as Fidel Castro undoubtedly expected. But it does not help resolve the 6-year-old’s future.

Elian was rescued off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day after his boat, filled with Cuban refugees, capsized. His mother and stepfather perished.

Elian was placed with relatives in Miami, but his father, still in Cuba, requested that Elian be sent back. The Immigration and Naturalization Service agreed, setting Jan. 14 for his return.

But a Florida court asserted jurisdiction and Republican Rep. Dan Burton, of Indiana, subpoenaed Elian for a March congressional hearing. Two Florida Republican Congressmen, Sen. Connie Mack and Rep. Bill McCollum are sponsoring legislation to make Elian a U.S. citizen.

That prompted the grandmothers’ visit. They met with INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, who said the two ladies “made a very compassionate and heartfelt plea to be reunited with their grandson.”

Elian’s case is a tragedy. His family’s flight highlights the reactionary communist system that continues to impoverish and oppress the Cuban people.

The deaths of Elian’s mother and stepfather show the price that some people pay for freedom. Their deaths, the worst loss a child can suffer, are particularly catastrophic for Elian.

Moreover, Elian has lost his father, and Juan Gonzalez has lost his son. If Elian stays in the United States, it may be years before they see each other again.

Normally the case would be simple. The father wants his child back. Back Elian should go.

Reuniting the two is particularly important given the death of Elian’s mother. The distant relatives with whom he is staying may offer him a loving home. But his father represents the security that Elian most needs after his mother perished.

Alas, however, Elian would not be returning to Canada, Japan or even Russia today, all of which he could freely leave in the future. To return to his father is to return to Castro’s Cuba, an island prison.

Indeed, it has been alleged that Elian’s dad knew of and supported the plan to take Elian to the U.S. But if this is so, Juan Gonzalez cannot easily admit the truth when his livelihood, liberty and life, and those of his family, are at Castro’s disposal.

Again, normally the case would be simple. Despite anomalies — Cubans face a bizarre policy whereby they are returned if captured at sea but can stay if they touch land — the U.S. has generally welcomed political refugees.

Yet Elian is just 6. He lacks the judgment necessary to form a well-considered desire to stay.

The only comparable case is that of Walter Polovchak, a 12-year-old who emigrated with his family from the Soviet Union in 1980. When Polovchak’s father decided after six months to return to communism, Walter resisted, leading to a nearly six-year court fight that ended only when he turned 18. He now lives in Illinois and says that his refusal to return “is the best decision I have ever made.”

However, Walter, not his mother, chose to seek freedom. His decision demonstrates how a child of 12, in contrast to one of 6, might understand the basic differences between a free and unfree society. Walter was much closer to adulthood — which actually ended his case — than is Elian. Moreover, Walter had not lost a parent.

Ironically, the collapse of communism means that Polovchak eventually would have been able to leave if he desired to do so. Communism in Cuba will disappear, too, hopefully early in Elian’s lifetime. But he could easily spend his entire childhood locked in an impoverished dictatorship.

What to do? First, take the case away from the INS, which used a frivolous technicality to assert its jurisdiction and acted with unseemly haste in deciding to return Elian. This most politically minded administration seems more interested in enhancing relations with Havana than protecting the freedom of a 6-year-old kid.

Second, let a court hold a custody hearing to determine what is in Elian’s “best interests.” Request that Juan Gonzalez, the two grandmothers, and any other immediate family members appear in the courtroom, free from Cuban coercion, to explain what they want for the child. And promise them asylum if they want to stay in the U.S.

Then, if the court decides that the best option is to return Elian, so be it. If it is to keep him here, so much the better.

Who would want to have to choose between family and freedom? Even worse, who should make the choice for Elian Gonzalez? Certainly not Washington, which has everything except Elian’s interest in mind.

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