News: Youngest Defector Sees Himself In Elian (2000)

Youngest Defector Sees Himself In Elian | By SCOTT HOLLERAN Special to the Sun-Sentinel

The world’s youngest defector to the U.S., Walter Polovchak, arrived at Lazaro Gonzalez’s house on April 1 with something simple to say to the world: Let Elian Gonzalez be free.

By late Sunday, as he watched basketball over a few beers at a Miami sports bar, Polovchak, 32, had held two press conferences and rallied demonstrators outside Elian’s Little Havana home with the cry: “Long live freedom!”

The crowd had cheered wildly at Polovchak’s words.

Some offered him Cuban sandwiches and others showed him their rosaries, Virgin Mary icons, posters and placards. His mission in Miami was well under way and, by the time he appeared on Good Morning America on Monday morning, Polovchak had met Elian at the house that has become the flashpoint for a profound philosophical conflict.

Twenty years earlier, Polovchak had been the lightning rod. The 12-year-old Ukrainian boy refused to return from Illinois to the Soviet Union with his parents in 1980. He fought his parents in court – opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Soviet Union – and lived with the constant threat of KGB kidnappers while he was moved among numerous foster homes. The young, non-English-speaking Ukrainian boy’s defiant declaration of independence became famous across the globe: “Never I go back.”

He hasn’t changed his mind. Polovchak, an office manager who lives outside Chicago, says while parents have the right to raise their children under normal circumstances, no parent has the right to force a child to live in a country without freedom. His case against his parents, he said, taught him that freedom is most important.

Reminding a crowd of reporters in front of Elian’s house that there is no freedom of speech or press in Cuba, he insisted that Elian’sbest interests would be served by living in the nation founded on individual rights.

“The best solution is for Elian to stay in America, and his father and his family to be allowed to stay here, too,” he said later in an exclusive interview. “I’m wishing, hoping and praying that the government opens the door to his entire family and ultimately offers Juan Miguel Gonzalez the option of staying here where he can be the best father he might be.”

Polovchak has plenty of opposition, including the Cuban government and the Clinton administration.

Julian Nava, a history professor at California State University, Northridge, who visited Cuba to film a documentary and served as ambassador to Mexico under the Carter and Reagan administrations, also disagrees with Polovchak. He said Elian’s best interests remain with his father in Cuba.

“Family comes first,” Nava said. “Elian should be with his father. He will have an ample opportunity to be whatever he wants to be within a socialist system.” Nava, who favors lifting the embargo against Cuba, said that the alleged tyranny of communism in Cuba is open to interpretation.

One of Elian’s Miami attorneys, Linda Osberg-Braun, said that Polovchak’s example is evidence to the contrary. “Polovchak is the all-American story,” she said. “He is a person who came to this country, succeeded, and had a boy who will become his own person. The Polovchak case is the American Dream.”

While waiting on the patio to meet the 6-year-old boy whose mother drowned after tying him to an inner tube, Polovchak was flooded with memories of his own struggle. Wearing a short-sleeved shirt with the emblem of the American flag, he drank bottled water to combat the Miami heat and accepted an offer of Cuban coffee from Elian’s great aunt, Angela. He chatted with Elian’s great uncle, Lazaro.

Elian, who had been taking a shower after a day at a fair, suddenly burst from the house with the boundless energy of a child unleashed on a playground. Polovchak watched him closely.

“He was very shy in the beginning because he didn’t know if I was coming to help him or take him away,” Polovchak said later. “But he warmed up to me and allowed me to play with him and throw him up in the air. [Elian’s cousin] Marisleysis explained my story to him in Spanish.”

A guest taking pictures of Elian — whose behavior ranged from a chronic refusal to wear his shoes to a carefully executed effort to get to a box of chocolate above his reach in the kitchen cupboard — was surprised when Elian snatched the camera and took a picture of himself. For the child, it was either the mischievous act of a 6-year-old boy or a bold demonstration that, despite the hordes of cameras that transmit his every move outside his home, Elian is in charge.

Whatever the depth of his understanding of the past four months’ dramatic events, Elian was off and running and trying to run over the guests with his motorized race car. But before Polovchak left the house, he said good-bye to Elian, who after hearing Polovchak’s story, quietly asked Marisleysis if his visitor’s story meant that he, too, could stay in America.

Polovchak knows that public opinion, newspaper editorials and the United States government are powerful adversaries. He sought to reassure the Cuban boy that the world is a wonderful place and that Elian belongs in it. As Polovchak crouched before the child and looked him in the eye, a hush fell over the guests and family. All eyes were on the world’s youngest defector and the child who is the heir to his legacy. Elian, still and serious, listened to the pale stranger.

In a solid Chicago accent that bears no trace of the Ukrainian language of his youth, Polovchak told Elian: “Hang in there, stay strong and this will end soon. One day, you can come up to Chicago, visit me and my son and play with him.”

Elian answered that he would like Polovchak to say hello to his son and to shake his hand for Elian. The little Cuban boy walked Polovchak through the front yard to the padlocked fence that may become the point of entry for those who would return him to Cuba.

Elian waved goodbye to his new friend.

Published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on April 9, 2000