"An Island Of Mirrors"

by John Marino

February 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. Puerto Rico has been riveted this month by a custody battle over a little boy between a local judge who wants to adopt him, his Lithuanian grandmother and, now it seems, his Russian father.

All of Puerto Rico is opining on the welfare of the boy, who was apparently abandoned here by his mother after a second marriage did not work out. Even Gov. Calderón said this week that her administration has been handling the case from the perspective of what is best for the boy. But the incident shows more about local authorities’ middling performance in the international arena than it does about how the state cares for kids.

Because the boy is a Russian citizen, the Russian authorities are the ones to decide the boy’s fate, according to international law. The fact that a local judge (forget whatever ethical violations she may have incurred in by entering the case) is providing a stable home environment or not is beside the point. But that’s what government agencies have been focusing on.

The incident is bringing comparisons with the case of the little Cuban boy Elián González, and the custody battle over him that waged between Miami and Havana. But that battle was largely fought as a political question, with arguments centering on whether the United States or Castro’s Cuba would provide the best future for the boy.

If the current custody battle in Puerto Rico over 9-year-old Arnas Gaurilcikas shows anything, however, it’s the insulationism that official Puerto Rico, and sometimes its larger society, suffers from that has earned it the moniker "an island of mirrors."

Indeed, Ombudsman Carlos López Nieves reported this week that all commonwealth agencies violated international regulations on the treatment of foreign nationals in their handling of the case.

The case is making front-page headlines as Dominican and U.S. officials are meeting in San Juan to negotiate the neighboring Caribbean nation’s entrance into a free trade pact with the United States.

Administration officials have made much of the choice of Puerto Rico for a portion of the talks. And they have long spun in San Juan their role in the negotiations as more significant than they than are given Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States, and its lack of sovereignty to enter into international pacts without U.S. State Department approval.

It was just such behavior — misrepresenting Puerto Rico’s sovereignty in international affairs to foreign officials — that got the Calderón State Department a reprimand from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Meanwhile, the administration has shown as much evidence this week of being less than adept in dealings with the federal government, as it has been with foreign governments.

A reading of a 1993 agreement regarding a southwest coast surveillance system clearly shows the Air Force violated it when it brought down the Lajas aerostat. Never mind that local and federal officials say the downing leaves the southwest of Puerto Rico vulnerable to drug smugglers. The pact requires the Air Force to give the commonwealth six months notice if it decides to halt the system, and provide assistance to the commonwealth if it decided to continue operating the aerostat.

Instead of pushing for compliance, the commonwealth has been bending over backwards to justify to local reporters why the Pentagon was not violating the accord. Moreover, commonwealth officials denied any knowledge that the blimp-like surveillance device was to be downed until after newspapers published photos of the deflated orb. This week, they appeared equally clueless about press reports that a redistribution of federal Education funds based on Census 2000 would net the island millions more than expected. After checking, local school officials estimate some $33 million more than expected will arrive here next year, according to press reports.

The commonwealth should not be shying away from navigating international waters to the fullest extent possible. And it should not shy away from ensuring that the federal government lives up to locally stuck bargains.

It’s just that administration officials, especially from a pro-commonwealth administration, should be nimble in their handling of both national and international affairs. After all, it’s the Popular Democratic Party that describes Puerto Rico as the "best of both worlds."

Government and business leaders are now lobbying to make San Juan the permanent headquarters of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, which is a good idea. Puerto Rico’s footing in Latin culture and its long-term relations with the United States make it a perfect model for other countries working towards integration with the North American economy. And especially in the case of the Dominican Republic’s entrance into the FTAA, it is operating from the perspective of healthy self-interest. But don’t push your affairs in national or international affairs by attempting to impose your own rules.

The Ombudsman said that commonwealth agencies violated Geneva Convention rules regarding custody of foreign citizens by treating the case of the Russian boy as a local custody issue — rather than surrendering jurisdiction to Russian authorities.

That was despite a July 2003 letter from the Russian consul asking that the boy be immediately returned to his family in Lithuania, according to a San Juan Star report. A commonwealth State Department official replied that that could not be done without proof life with the mother's family in Lithuania would guarantee a healthy physical and mental environment for the boy. That’s clearly a violation of international law by the Calderón State Department.

The handling of the case, despite good intentions, is a symbol of the sometimes arrogance of big government, which too often believes it knows what is best. It also shows the isolationism that too many government officials embrace.

It’s as true in San Juan today, as it was with Elián in Miami, that the government should send the boy home to his family. Any delay in doing that just increases the chances for human tragedy.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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