Big winner in Elian case: Cuba

The dispute, which reached a climax in Saturday's raid, may prove a major turning point in US-Cuba relations.

The reunification of Elian Gonzalez with his father marks a major victory for those in the US who place family unity ahead of anticommunist, cold-war sentiments.

It represents an overwhelming victory for Juan Miguel Gonzalez in the five-month custody battle with his relatives in Miami.

But most significantly, the predawn raid and continued efforts to resolve the dispute over the six-year-old boy may be moving the Clinton administration to the brink of a major turning point in US-Cuba relations.

And one man in particular stands to benefit from all of this: Fidel Castro.

For the first time since the Bay of Pigs invasion poisoned relations with Cuba's communist president in 1961, Havana and Washington are working in an atmosphere of growing collaboration rather than mutual suspicion.

And the prospect of a drawn-out appeals-court fight over Elian suggests that US-Cuba cooperation over the boy's future will continue for perhaps many more months.

There is debate over the extent to which President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno can claim their three-minute blitz in Little Havana is vindication for the rule of law.

A single photograph of a helmeted federal agent aiming his assault rifle in the direction of Elian during the raid is raising questions about the appropriate use of force in a law-enforcement operation that other analysts say was carried out with clockwork precision and no major injuries.

The long-running custody dispute also made for tricky presidential politics, with the Cuban-American vote clearly on the line. At the same time, it has undermined the clout of Cuban-exile leaders in Miami.

And it may have sharply limited the political career of Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who, in a nationally televised press conference, put Mr. Clinton and Ms. Reno on notice that they would be held personally responsible for any unrest triggered by the forced reunification of father and son. Analysts say the comment came dangerously close to an incitement to riot.

Through it all, Mr. Castro must have been smiling.

"Fidel Castro positioned himself so he couldn't lose," says Elena Freyre of the Cuban Committee for Democracy in Miami.

Castro's stance that Elian belonged with his father has been backed by most of the rest of the world, by two-thirds of the American public, by the Clinton administration, and by the vast majority of Cuban citizens.

Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington, says a perception in Cuba that the US wouldn't act in support of a Cuban father benefited Castro by raising the level of cynicism among Cubans about the motives of the US government.

"People's feelings were that the US was a country that might somehow be more humane, and those feelings were undermined significantly [by the drawn-out battle over Elian]," he says. In Cuba, even the most vigorous political dissidents were calling for the boy's return.

To the extent that Castro has prospered during the Elian case, anti-Castro exile leaders in Miami are emerging as major losers. Some analysts say their handling of the crisis points up a power vacuum. "We are finding out that we are living this myth of the power of the hard-line exile community," says Ms. Freyre. "The reality has been that the emperor has no clothes."

Many Cuban-Americans were hoping to use Elian's plight to wage an information war against Castro. But rather than driving a wedge between mainstream America and communist authorities in Cuba, the exiles' open defiance of US law in vowing to keep Elian in Miami drove a wedge between Little Havana and a majority of Americans.

And that could undermine Cuban-American clout in Washington, where the case may reignite debate over ending the US trade embargo of the island and perhaps even spark serious talk of normalizing relations.

At a minimum, Professor Brenner says, the US-Cuba goodwill established from the Elian saga is likely to lead to a lifting of that portion of the embargo that applies to food and medicine shipments to Cuba.

For many Americans, the arrival of Juan Miguel Gonzalez in the US helped put a human face on Cuba. Some, caught up in broken marriages and child-custody disputes themselves, sympathized with the plight of a father in a foreign land, who said he simply wanted to be with his son.

In Washington, the reunification could help exorcise some of the ghosts of Reno's disastrous decision at Waco. But Reno and the Clinton administration still face criticism for earlier decisions that delayed Elian's case and encouraged Cuban-Americans to hold up the boy as a symbol of their own struggle for freedom from communist oppression.

As the legal battle continues in appeals court, analysts say it is time for the healing process to begin. Cuban-exile leaders must take steps to prevent any further violent demonstrations in Little Havana, and efforts should be undertaken to ease strains that developed between the Cuban-American, black, Anglo, and other Hispanic communities in south Florida during the standoff.

As for the Gonzalez family, observers say the passage of time may help family members put their differences aside and, for the first time in five months, unite with a single purpose - to let Elian heal.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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