Behind Elian debate, a faded fear of communism

In the public mind, Castro's Cuba - and other remnants of the 'red menace' - no longer pose a serious threat.

It is dumbfounding to the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez: The majority of Americans say the boy is better off with his father in communist Cuba than with them in freedom-loving Miami.

But the relatives appear to have overlooked a decade-long shift in American attitudes toward communism, since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

No longer is the "red menace" perceived to be the serious threat it once was, analysts say. In its place is rising public concern about suspected terrorists like Osama bin Laden or rogue states like Iraq.

"The perception has been steered by leaders - both Republican and Democrat - that the cold war is over. Americans have taken their cue," says Gary Prevost, a political scientist and Cuba specialist at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn.

Of course, public support for reuniting Elian with his father is also driven by Americans' fundamental belief in parental rights. But a lessening public fear of communism is also a significant factor, agrees independent pollster John Zogby.

"Our presidents and leaders have been able to provide us new [Fidel] Castros in the form of Saddam Hussein and so on," says Mr. Zogby. "The fact of the matter is, Cuba, with its 11 million people 90 miles off the shores of Miami, is not a threat as a stand-alone communist state in the Western Hemisphere."

It's not surprising then, that 63 percent of Americans say Elian is better off with his father in Cuba than with relatives in Miami, according to a Gallup poll released this week.

While the public may have concerns about communist countries, the communism is not what worries them, say US foreign policy experts.

China and Vietnam, oh my!

Since the Bush administration, for instance, the predominant message Americans have been hearing about China is "trade partner." Even if the public is wary of being drawn into a war over Taiwan, or disturbed by China's human rights record, the fundamental impression of that country is "made in China," says Thomas Henriksen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif.

As for Vietnam, the expatriate Vietnamese community in the US is ferociously anticommunist, just as the Cuban-American community is. But the rest of the nation has not objected to the Clinton administration's establishment of full diplomatic relations with that former enemy, still ruled by communists.

Even North Korea, a totalitarian regime, is perceived by the public more as the product of a bizarre dictator than of communism per se, says Mr. Henriksen.

Since the Soviet era ended, Americans "assume the ideological conflicts are over," he says. "It's the end of history."

That may be especially true when it comes to public impressions of Cuba.

If Elian had been rescued from the Florida Straits in the 1960s, when Cuba was pointing Soviet-made missiles at the United States, Americans might have felt differently about returning the boy to the Castro regime.

But that was the last time a majority of Americans considered the island to be a real, communist danger, says William Flanigan, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

The only other time the island nation caused dismay among Americans was in 1980, when refugees from Cuba flooded US shores, says Mr. Flanigan, who has studied 40 years of American public opinion about Cuba.

Still, Castro isn't Mr. Popular

That is not to say Americans like Fidel Castro. To the contrary, Cuba's president has very negative ratings in the US, says Flanigan. Human rights organizations point to Cuba's lack of democratic elections and the absence of free media, as well as its active suppression of dissent.

But the US State Department, in its 1998 overview of global terrorism, said Cuba no longer supports armed struggle in Latin America or elsewhere. Havana may indoctrinate young Cubans with Marxism, but the country also has a literacy rate of nearly 96 percent and a universal healthcare system that is the envy of many countries.

Meanwhile, through the Elian case, Americans "have had an opportunity to learn a little more about Cuba," says Saint John's Mr. Prevost. They are seeing "a father like any other father" and grandmothers who, like American grandmas, love their grandson, he says.

Opinion polls about US policies toward Cuba illustrate the size of the attitude shift. A majority of citizens now favor lifting the decades-long trade embargo against Cuba, says Zogby. An ABC News poll from April shows the share of Americans who support establishing US-Cuba diplomatic relations grew from 38 percent in January 1998 to 47 percent now.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, says the Miami relatives and the Cuban-American community are alone in their views on the dangers of Cuba.

"Cuban-Americans hate Castro for very understandable but specific reasons, and identify themselves as Americans [who see] the threat that communism, through Cuba, poses to the United States.

"For most Americans, who are not of Cuban origin, that communist threat obviously has disappeared. Castro by himself is viewed as a nuisance,... but not as something that engages the passion of most Americans."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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