WASHINGTON — Over the course of 40 years the United States' relationship with Fidel Castro's Cuba has included a hapless invasion (Bay of Pigs), the most dangerous 13 days of the Cold War (the Cuban Missile Crisis), bizarre assassination plots (poisoned cigars), and a bitter struggle over the future of a six-year-old whom some believe was saved from drowning by dolphins.
This week, the long-strained US-Cuba dialogue features something new: cooperation.
Elian Gonzalez's strange American odyssey has drawn to a close, per the wishes of both the US and Cuban governments. And a sudden deal in the House of Representatives has cleared the way for the most substantial easing ever of US economic sanctions against the Communist Castro regime.
"The door is open and that's what's important," said Rep. George Nethercutt (R) of Washington, sponsor of the measure, which would also loosen strictures on Iran, Sudan, Libya, and North Korea.
Interaction between the colossus to the north and its little can-opener-shaped neighbor has often been difficult. Even before Castro seized power in 1959, Cubans often felt that the US behaved like an overbearing parent. The US, for its part, has often judged Cuba an ungrateful irritant - as if it were a wayward child.
For a brief period the US believed it could do business with Castro. In 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon met him in the bowels of the Capitol when the new Cuban leader arrived in Washington during a brief US visit. Afterwards, Mr. Nixon wrote that the US had no choice but to try to "orient" the charismatic Castro in the right direction.
But Castro was already displaying signs that he was not the kind of person to take orientation from anybody - and was prepared to jab at the US no matter how big it was. On the same visit, he leapt a barrier at the Bronx Zoo and petted the Bengal tigers, to the astonishment of onlookers. A year later, Castro confiscated US-owned oil refineries without compensation, and all chance for rapproachment was lost. The pattern for 40 years of US-Cuban difficulties was set: Periodic warming periods, followed by unilateral actions on the part of one party (usually Castro) which raised tensions all over again.
A history of run-ins
Virtually every US president since Eisenhower has had some kind of major run-in with the fatigue-clad Cuban leader. John F. Kennedy had the Cuban Missile Crisis (and the Bay of Pigs). Lyndon Johnson faced the first big exodus of Cuban refugees, from the port of Camarioca. The Ford administration faced the first dispatch of Cuban troops to assist in African wars. Jimmy Carter saw the opening of diplomatic interests sections in Washington and Havana - and the dispatch of 20,000 Cuban soldiers to Ethiopia and the chaos of the Mariel boatlift. Ronald Reagan dealt with Cuban assistance to Nicaragua's Sandinistas, which he used as justification for his administration's support of Contra rebels.
The Clinton administration took office pledging to work towards a more-normalized, if not more normal, relationship. But emotionally charged events kept interfering with their intentions, from another upsurge in rafters to the 1996 downing by Cuban jets of aircraft belonging to a Miami-based anti-Castro group.
Then came the saga of Elian. The case of the six-year old boy who touched off an international custody battle personifies much of the tension and contradiction of the US-Cuban relationship.
The US and Cuba have often fought like estranged relatives, physically close yet emotionally far apart, whipsawed by symbolism and anger. In short, they have behaved much like the branches of Elian's family.
The Elian affair's effect on US-Cuban relations will likely linger for years to come. Time may never provide a satisfying answer to the question of whether Elian would have been better off living in democratic Miami with his now-famous relatives rather than residing with his father and step-mother in communist Cuba.
But US courts - from a Miami district court, to the appeals court in Atlanta, and the US Supreme Court in Washington - are in full agreement that American immigration law permits the attorney general the necessary discretion to turn the six-year-old boy over to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.
The US Supreme Court cleared the way for Elian's return to Cuba when it declined on Wednesday to extend a court order barring the boy from leaving the country pending the completion of legal appeals.
Some Cuba analysts say that contrary to the circus-like media frenzy that accompanied Elian's stay in Little Havana, his return to Cuba will likely be much more subdued. "I think they will really try to tone down the amount of demonstrating because [Cuban officials] are saying they want him to go back very discreetly," says Jane Franklin, author of "Cuba and the United States." But whether Elian can ever go fully back to the world of the content little boy who chased lizards for fun is unclear.
*Staff writer Warren Richey contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society