The uneasy politics that mark the US and Cuban relationship also color the Elian Gonzalez story. To understand some of the strident actions by some Cuban Americans in Miami, you need look no further than Cuyahoga county. 90.3's Yolanda Perdomo profiles one Clevelander's journey to the US from Cuba, to see how his views of this case are shaped by his experience decades ago.
Yolanda Perdomo- When Ramon Garcia looks back at leaving his homeland, he's filled with feelings of disappointment and disgust. Garcia is now 35 years old. His cropped brown hair and beard sport blonde highlights as the sun pours into his cramped room on a weekday morning. Garcia works for Humadopt, a center for doctors and health care technicians who help Latinos who are HIV positive. He takes off his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose when talking about his final moments in Cuba 20 years ago.
Ramon Garcia- They put me in a 23 foot boat with 19 people. And we was in the sea for three days. Until the Coast Guard rescued us.
YP- Did you think you were going to live? Did you think about dying?
RG- Well, at that time, I just wanted to get out of Cuba. I don't care if I die or live. I just wanted to get out of Cuba. Because of the oppression, the government, the system.
YP- That was in 1980. Ramon Garcia was about to be drafted into the military. He left in May, the last month of the infamous Mariel boat lift that brought in more than 125 thousand Cubans to the United States during a five month period. Garcia laments that he never had much of a childhood because his life in America was so hard at first. As a teenager, he lived in tent cities under highways and in a football stadium in Miami before he was able to get a job as a bus boy in a Little Havana restaurant.
RG- A waiter who used to work with me said why don't you go to Cleveland Ohio? So Cleveland Ohio was not even in my mind. And (I) just jumped on a Greyhound. $133.50, I'll never forget. And I only came with $9.50 to Cleveland. It was a 36 hour trip. I slept in the Greyhound bus station for three days...(It was) kind of awful because you don't speak the language. Here come a policeman and said, "What are you doing here?" My answer was, "Me here, Florida work".
YP- Saying 'Me here, Florida work' was enough for the police officer to take Garcia to a social service agency where a sponsor family helped him start a new life in this country. He lived at a YMCA, and used vouchers to get hot meals. Garcia attended high school, and then went on to Cuyahoga Community College. He wanted to share his success with his family back in Cuba, and was working to bring them to Cleveland. But that wasn't to be.
RG- In 1986, I became an American citizen. I tried to bring my mother. Two weeks before she was able to come, she had everything. The OK from Washington. The visa and everything. My mother; what the sources that I have, was that she was killed. That's all I know. She was (a) really political person in Cuba. In favor of the human rights.
YP- While he heard rumors that the Cuban government was responsible for his mother's murder, the disappearance of Garcia's father a year later remains a mystery. Garcia says while he was born into the revolution, he knew at an early age it was not a future he could embrace.
RG- You have a government that tells you what you are going to eat, what you are going to dress. Where you are going to live. And what you are going to do. You have to say that everything is perfect and that everything is good. And you have to do whatever the government tells you what to do.
YP- Garcia closely follows Elian's story, and he doesn't dispute that there appears to be genuine love between father and son. But he thinks Juan Miguel, Elian's father, is not really speaking freely from his heart.
RG- They don't realize that his father is being manipulated by the Cuban government. That his father applied two times to come to the United States. What happened to the mother issue? That she tried to come. Two weeks ago, I think two weeks ago, or a week ago in Washington, people that were with signs, the Cuban government, the interest section, came out of there and beat the hell out of these people. You are talking about people in the United States soil. A peaceful protest. Imagine in Cuba what they do to these people?
YP- Local and national polls show the American public overwhelmingly supports the idea that not only should the child be with his only living parent, but that the force used to remove Elian from his relatives was justifiable. That's fine with Ramon Garcia. He contends that's what separates the US from Cuba.
RG- That's the best thing about this country is that you have the right to express yourself and decide what you want best. Like I say, you know, learn from other people. Try to be in their shoes, and just because you see a survey, that does not mean anything.
YP- Garcia, who works as an AIDS-HIV educator, says his life's work is based on repaying a community that helped him when he, too was just a young boy living in this country. In Cleveland, I'm Yolanda Perdomo for 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.