September 8, 2000

C.U. Grad Discusses Elian, Her Move to Cuba

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Contrary to what most Americans would expect, Karen Lee Ward ’75 moved to Cuba to find a place better than what she knew at home. Ward, who spent the last 18 years living in Cuba as a teacher, writer and journalist, spoke about the misconceptions many Americans have about Cuban lifestyle.

In a talk titled “U.S. Cuba Relations After Elian,” Ward also addressed issues surrounding the Elian Gonzalez case involving a five-year-old Cuban boy washed ashore in southern Florida. The incident sparked a year-long custody battle between Elian’s Miami relatives and his Cuban father.

Elian’s Miami relatives did not want him to go back to Cuba for fear that his political freedom and economic opportunities would be lost.

“I had taken my child to Cuba precisely because I thought it would be a better place to raise him,” Ward said.

The U.S., however, embargoes Cuban products and refuses to engage in trade with the island nation. One of the greatest complaints against the U.S., Ward mentioned, is its refusal to sell medical supplies and food to the country.

“Involuntary economic warfare [imposed by the United States] in Cuba kills people,” Ward said, pointing out the devastating effects of witholding medicine from the country. “The U.S. wants to suffocate the Cuban people,” she said.

Cuba today functions under a socialist government headed by President Fidel Castro. The system provides health care for all of its citizens as well as free education.

“By growing up in Cuba, the basic human rights are addressed; such as food, housing, culture, health care, education and more,” Ward said.

Anti-communist propaganda from the Cold War has left many Americans with an image of Cuba as a poor and oppressed country, but Ward disputes this claim.

“There is a tremendous sense of unity, and children are the pride and joy of the revolution,” Ward said. In this sense, detaining Elian in the U.S. for so long was deemed especially cruel by Cubans, according to Ward.

Many Cubans have immigrated illegally to Miami where they have been helped by the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). Ward considered CANF instrumental in keeping Elian in the U.S. for longer than necessary.

“The whole sad story would not have happened without the CANF,” Ward said. ” If I could have convinced myself that the Miami relatives were a caring family I would have disagreed with them, but I wouldn’t have been as anguished [with their decision],” she said in an interview with The Sun.

Ward criticized the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act for making “it easy and incredibly alluring … for a Cuban who comes here illegally to get a green card as soon as they touch U.S. soil.” She warned against the recurrence of an Elian-like case if immigration policy against Cubans is changed.

Although there are those that oppose the revolution in Cuba itself “nobody could claim it was moral to separate a child from his father to make a political pawn out of him,” Ward said. She further defended Castro’s efforts to retrieve the child, saying that “Elian’s father chose the fight, not Fidel.”

In a question and answer session, Ward was faced with several concerns from audience members on why so many Cubans decide to immigrate illegally to the U.S.

“Cubans don’t want to go just anywhere to escape, they want to come here,” explained Ward, “the U.S. actively and consciously tries to lure anyone from doctors to … baseball players.” She further pointed out that 90 percent of Cubans who apply for visas are rejected by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, making illegal immigration a more attractive option.

Ward attended Cornell during the Civil Rights movement of the sixties and subsequently during the start of the Vietnam War.

“I like to say I was born in the civil rights movement and grew up in Vietnam,” Ward said. “Everything I experienced at Cornell changed my life.”

“My history at Cornell was an awakening of social consciousness,” she added.

Ward was first attracted to Cuba while in Europe, discussing with friends the situation there and hearing about the humanitarian facilities available.

Ward’s lecture was sponsored by the Committee on U.S.–Latin-American Relations (CUSLAR) and the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA).

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata