Elian case a setback for Cuban exiles

Cuban-Americans may lose credibility in court of US public opinion.

The future credibility of the leadership of the Cuban-American community hinges on the wishes of a six-year-old boy.

To a large extent, so do the prospects of finding a harmonious solution to the nearly five-month custody dispute over Elian Gonzalez.

Twice in the past week, deals that would have guaranteed a swift and peaceful end to the standoff were nixed because Elian told his Miami relatives that he did not want to return to Cuba.

This dynamic of being faithful to the wishes of a young child injects a high level of volatility into the ongoing tug of war over Elian, as it moves into a potentially decisive week.

And it is setting the stage for what some analysts believe looks increasingly like a major setback for the Cuban-American leadership, at exactly the time the exile community is commemorating another devastating loss - the April 17, 1961, defeat at the Bay of Pigs.

Analysts say the uncertainty surrounding the Elian case is heightened by the apparent inability of any of the major Cuban exile organizations in Miami to exert influence over Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle, who refuses to deliver the child to federal authorities for a reunion with Elian's father.

While some leaders in the Cuban-American community acknowledge that it is in their interest to quickly resolve the custody dispute, there is no single leader capable of appealing to Mr. Gonzalez and uniting the community in a way that would best protect the broader interests of Cuban-Americans, these analysts say.

"Jorge Mas Canosa would have never allowed things to get to this point, ever," says Elena Freyre, executive director of the Miami-based Cuban Committee for Democracy, referring to the powerful founder of the Cuban American National Foundation who passed away in 1997. "He would have brokered a compromise and allowed the foundation to save face."

In the past week, the foundation, the Cuban exiles' chief lobbying arm in Washington, has tried to foster a peaceful resolution of the Elian affair. Foundation officials put a stop to plans for disruptive demonstrations outside Miami's international airport, and more recently, the foundation and US Sen. Robert Torricelli brokered a back-channel family reunion that featured the possible return of the boy to his father. But the late-night deal fell apart when Elian balked, and the Miami relatives pulled out.

As a result, it remains unclear who exactly is in charge. Is Gonzalez emerging as a maverick who will follow his conscience into what looks to be an all-out defiant battle against the legal power of the federal government? Or is Elian himself the only one who can end the impasse by announcing his willingness to be reunited with his father?

Such uncertainty is dangerous, analysts say, because it may cause federal authorities to conclude that the only way to end the impasse is to remove the child by force from the relatives' Little Havana home.

Cuban-American leaders are appealing for calm, but many observers are worried that a violent confrontation between protesters outside Elian's house and federal agents looks inevitable.

"I don't see this being resolved in any other way than federal marshals going into the house and taking the boy out, which I think is extremely unfortunate," says Shawn Malone, a Cuba expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "If it turns violent, it is a lose-lose situation. It makes the Miami relatives look bad and the US government look bad. It would obviously be a media spectacle, with a crying, screaming boy being dragged out of the Miami relatives' house," he says.

But Attorney General Janet Reno is not without other options.

The Justice Department has asked a three-judge federal appeals court panel to order Gonzalez to turn Elian over to federal officials so he can be reunited with his father. Such a court order would place the great-uncle in the position of not only defying the attorney general, but also a federal appeals court.

If Gonzalez continues his defiance in the face of a federal court order, the judges could declare him in contempt of court and send him to jail, or levy fines for each day of noncompliance.

Julia Sweig, of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says fines and jail time may not be enough to persuade Gonzalez to turn the boy over. "I can't see anything positive coming out of this," she says. "I can't see what [Cuban-American leaders] get out of stretching this out as long as it has gone on. The downside is losing credibility for their issues in Washington and in the court of American public opinion," she says.

"This is giving the Cuban-American community a black eye," says Ms. Freyre. "People are saying Miami doesn't think it is part of the United States anymore."

Jose Basulto, leader of the Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, disagrees. "I don't know how it can backfire," he says. "The child is a human being and his interests should be considered."

He adds, "This is not an ownership thing, this is a person and that person has rights."

That perspective was put on display for the world on Friday when the Miami relatives released a videotape in which Elian told his father while wagging his index finger that he did not want to return to Cuba.

The making of the tape was widely criticized by child psychologists, who said it could undermine the child's relationship with his father.

But Mr. Basulto says there was nothing on the tape he hadn't heard before. "I have talked to the kid many times and the kid has told me the same thing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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