Cuban gives perspective on freedom

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 20, 2000

If you had to use one word, it would be freedom.&uot; That’s how Oscar Balandrin sums up the tug-of-war that has turned a 6-year-old Cuban boy’s plight into a political battle.

Balandrin knows how important that one word is. At 15, he left his native Cuba to come to the United States — alone, the first member of his family to leave the communist country.

&uot;Over there, there are no choices,&uot; Balandrin says, his voice still thick with the accent of his boyhood home. &uot;At that time I was old enough to know I did not like the system. The wrong word to the wrong person could get you in trouble. I saw friends arrested, deemed enemies of the state. And anyone who does not agree with the government is an enemy of the state.&uot;

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In America, a mere 90 miles from the coast of Cuba, Balandrin found a whole new world, where he has built a successful business in Tuscaloosa, Ala. &uot;You can be so carefree here with your thoughts and your words,&uot; he says.

Still in contact with family back in Cuba, Balandrin believes things have not changed much in the 37 years since he left.

So as the political war over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez continues, Balandrin is watching with interest. Elian was found clinging to an inner-tube on Thanksgiving Day; his mother drowned during their escape from Cuba. Elian is living with Miami relatives, and they want him to stay in the United States.

His father and grandparents, however, want him sent back to Cuba, and the U.S. Immigration Service agrees. Balandrin also believes Elian must return to Cuba.

But not because he believes it is best for the boy; it is simply the law, he says.

Still, Balandrin is skeptical about the protests in Cuba that demand the boy be returned. &uot;I laugh at all those demonstrations,&uot; he says. &uot;How many people had the choice of going to demonstrate?&uot;

Balandrin says government officials routinely round up factory workers to participate. If you refuse, he says, you lose your job.

&uot;The state is the only employer,&uot; Balandrin says. &uot;In a country with so much hunger, how are you going to feed your family (if you lose your job)? You have no choice in the matter.&uot;

Balandrin is angry with news commentators who seem to side with Cuba. Fidel Castro, he says, is a master of public relations; he has turned what could have been an embarrassing situation into a potential triumph for Cuba.

&uot;I would love for (news commentators) to see the letters from my family begging for food, begging for medications,&uot; Balandrin says. &uot;You can’t really comprehend unless you live there or you have lived there. You can imagine, but you cannot comprehend.&uot;

Balandrin believes Elian’s mother would have wanted her son to stay in America.

&uot;A mother risks her life to cross 90 miles of ocean,&uot; he says. &uot;How desperate was she when she did that? What kind of political situation would drive somebody to do that? Yet thousands of people risk life and limb to do it. Freedom is something that is so easy for people who have it to take for granted.&uot;

And Balandrin wonders, as a divorced father himself, whether Elian’s father is able to speak his mind about his son’s welfare with Castro listening.

&uot;My son lives with his mother. Although I want him to be with me all the time, I know that it’s best for my son to live with his mother,&uot; Balandrin says. &uot;What kind of a father is (Elian’s) that he would want his son to grow up in that kind of environment? What kind of a love is that?&uot;

Kerry Whipple is a senior staff writer for The Democrat. She can be reached at 445-3562 or by e-mail at