The pathetically sad case of little Charlie Gard, the 11-month-old Briton for whom his parents are thwarted in seeking medical treatment, by doctors and governments alike, brings to mind Elian Gonzalez, another little boy whose hands were in the fate of government bureaucrats nearly two decades ago, a little boy who at the age of six was taken from relatives by gunpoint and returned to a despotic regime after his mother died trying to bring him to America for freedom.

The wrong decision about Elian turned him into the pawn and ward of a thug dictator; the wrong decision about Charlie will surely hasten his death. In Charlie’s case, the parents are likewise being told they cannot bring their boy to America – even for a better chance at life itself.

Elian Gonzalez, for those who are too young or don’t remember, was the Cuban boy who survived when a small boat carrying him, his mother, and twelve others to freedom sank off the coast of Florida north of Miami in November 1999. Only little Elian and two others survived; his mother perished with the rest. Elian was rescued clinging to an inner tube and brought to the United States, and eventually placed with relatives in Florida. Thus an international incident was born.

Elian’s father in Cuba, who was divorced from his mother before he was born, but shared joint custody, pled for the boy, as did the boy’s two grandmothers. In April 2000, after months of debate and political pressure, Elian was removed by armed Immigration and Naturalization Service agents (famous photo here) from his relative’s home and returned to Cuba. Legal battles were exhausted in what was deemed, by some, a victory for parental rights in which most Americans sided with the father.


Elian’s mother, dying amid rolling waves on her way to America, wanted only freedom for her boy, who is now a tool of a despotic regime. She, not Fidel Castro, truly loved him. That the American government caved on this was a tragic episode for our country, and is one of the factors that may have cost Al Gore the presidency eight years later. Even the liberal Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe attacked the way Elian was removed from his family in Miami, calling it a decision that “strikes at the heart of constitutional government and shakes the safeguards of liberty.”

Today over in England, Charlie Gard suffers from the deadly mitochondrial depletion syndrome, which is so rare he is only the sixteenth child to be so diagnosed. The London hospital where Charlie is being cared for wants to remove him from life support, and his parents have raised funds to bring Charlie to the United States for an experimental treatment. The courts have sided with the hospital, preventing the baby’s release to travel to the U.S. Pope Francis and President Trump have each used the bully pulpit of Twitter to stand up and offer help to the parents, and as of this writing, the British establishment has held off on removing his ventilator. They won’t release Charlie to his parents, or allow his transfer to Bambino Gesu Children’s Hospital in Rome at the pope’s urging – citing unspecified “legal reasons.”

In Elian’s case, the argument of the rights of the father to his son was a false one that played well for American politicians and news media. As Elian and his father have admitted, the real father they had was Fidel Castro. There are no parental rights in dictator states. It was Castro, not Elian’s father, who loomed large for the boy when he returned home. Elian’s father didn’t even make the initial January 2000 trip to the United States to recover him, leaving that to his grandmothers.  

When Castro died in 2016, Elian was a featured subject on Cuban television, offering his worship to El Comandante: “We, the Cuban people, are proud to have a real hero, the real Fidel. That hero had greater powers than Superman because he has the power of being invincible, of being immortal. In a movie, Superman can die. Fidel lives in the hearts of all Cubans. Fidel grows and becomes history, and Fidel will never die.”

On the other hand, in the case of Charlie Gard, it is hard to impugn the personal motives of these British bureaucrats, up to a point, who are moving slowly in the process to allow the parents more time. They seem to want to help Charlie’s parents. But as emissaries of the State, they cannot love. The State has no emotions, no feelings. At best, it balances things out according to economic algorithms and tries to find what’s best for all. That’s why it is more comfortable giving up on Charlie (or God, for that matter) than his parents are.

One commentator has criticized pundits who use the Charlie Gard case as an argument against what is euphemistically referred to as “single-payer” health care. The fact remains, when government assumes full responsibility for health care, these sorts of decisions are made communally. There is no real reason why the hospital cannot release Charlie to his parents’ care or especially assist his transfer to another place – unless there’s some other unspoken consideration.

One is reminded of C.S. Lewis’ observation about the managerial “admin” age in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, where he described his idea of Hell: “The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.”

The fact that Charlie’s parents had to argue their case through not only the entire British court system, but the European Court of Human Rights, shows that this decision was being made by the wrong people. Medical decisions about children should be made by families consulting with doctors, not judges, and if the family finds doctors willing to help, and can afford it, they should get the benefit of the doubt. And it speaks volumes that Charlie’s parents were able to raise more than a million dollars from tens of thousands of perfect strangers to cover an air ambulance and all other healthcare.

These strangers, who voted with their dollars, pounds and euros, speak eloquently on behalf of a parent’s love and a parent’s desperate attempt to save a child’s life, no matter the cost. Elian did not have a chance at freedom; Charlie still has a chance, however slim, at life.

K.E. Colombini, a former journalist and political speechwriter, writes from St. Louis, Missouri.