Ironically, Elian saga may ease US-Cuba ties

Washington and Havana find common cause in reuniting son and father.

The Cuban-American community's fight to keep Elian Gonzalez in the United States has backfired in a way that may substantially soften America's hard line toward Cuba.

Rather than solidifying American opposition to Cuban President Fidel Castro, the tenacious position of Cuban exiles in Miami has forced Washington into what has become a period of cooperation with Havana in an undertaking in which both governments share a common goal - the reunification of a father and his son.

In addition, it is a goal shared by a majority of Americans. A reunion of Elian with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, could take place sometime this week. But it is not yet clear what the exact procedure will be or even whether the Miami relatives who have cared for Elian for the past four months are willing to cooperate.

In the meantime, experts in US-Cuban relations say Miami's Cuban exile community has a lot more to lose than just custody of a six-year-old boy.

Elian's case has created a new dynamic that is opening a door for closer US-Cuban relations. And some analysts say it is setting the stage for what could become a key foreign-policy legacy of the Clinton administration: the US coming to terms with the hemisphere's last bastion of communism.

"What we are seeing is a gradual unraveling of Washington's hard-line policy toward Cuba. It is beginning to fray," says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "In a way, this takes us to where US-Vietnam relations were five years ago. It is the early stages of a modest thaw."

Others warn that if the White House reaches out to Castro without first obtaining major concessions on human rights and political expression, the US will only help strengthen Castro's hold on power.

"The interest of the United States is not to cater to a dictator," says Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. "If this is the legacy that the Clinton administration wants to leave ... that is their choice. But history won't be very kind."

Rather than driving a wedge between US public opinion and the Castro regime, the hard-fought battle over Elian's future has undermined the clout of one of the most powerful immigrant lobbies in the US, analysts say.

"This is a watershed.... It is a watershed in breaking the back of the anti-Castro lobby," says Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington. "I don't think it will have an impact this year, but I do think it will have an impact within a year."

Michael Rattner of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York City agrees: "What you've really seen is the first time in almost 40 years of US policy toward Cuba that the US has actually said to that [Cuban exile] community that you are not going to get what you want."

Other analysts say a significant shift in US-Cuban relations is unlikely in an election year and, more significantly, the tug-of-war over Elian has not caused members of Congress to change their view on Cuba, particularly their support of the longtime embargo of the island state.

"It is still the same cast of characters [seeking closer ties to Cuba], the Jose Serranos, Maxine Waters, and Charley Rangels who are front and center on this issue," says Jose Cardenas of the Cuban American National Foundation, the main anti-Castro lobbying organization in Washington. "If Dennis Hastert came out and said this whole Elian Gonzalez ordeal is making me rethink US policy toward Cuba, then we'd be worried. But he hasn't."

Mr. Cardenas says those who are calling for closer ties to Castro and predicting a waning of Cuban-exile clout are miscalculating. "The Elian saga has served to reignite a passion among the Cuban-American community," he says. "As an organization we will certainly use the next few months to ask, 'Are you frustrated? Are you angry? Then the way you express that is in the voting booth.' "

If Cardenas is right, Cuban-American clout at the polls could play a key role in determining which presidential candidate receives Florida's 25 electoral college votes this fall.

But others say a more fundamental shift is under way. "Clinton recognizes that this [hard-line Cuba policy] is a great flaw on his foreign-policy record," says Mr. Birns. "He may very well want to edge the country toward normalization."

The US and Cuba cooperate in areas of drug interdiction and immigration. In recent years, the Clinton administration has eased travel restrictions to the island and permitted the Baltimore Orioles to play the Cuban national baseball team last year. But the 40-year US trade embargo continues.

"I am sure President Clinton would love to lift the embargo, but the truth is Castro has done nothing to warrant" the move, says Ninoska Perez, a Spanish-language radio host in Miami and spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation. "In Cuba, they have not held elections for the last 40 years. They still violate human rights, there are still political prisoners, there is no free expression. So what has changed?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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