A family feud across the Straits of Florida

The Elián Gonzalez crisis exposed the deep, twisted roots of the US-Cuba conflict

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Fidel Castro is cracking down on dissent. Again. And he's blaming the United States and its hard-line policy toward Cuba. At a time when most Americans support an easing of the restrictions placed on Cuba, some may wonder why the Bush administration continues to pursue a hard-line policy. Ann Louise Bardach's "Cuba Confidential" helps answer that question. By profiling the conservative Miami community that has long held sway over policy toward Cuba, Bardach reveals the underlying dynamic of US foreign policy.

Cuba and the US have a relationship laced with emotion, temper, and love. It is a story of divided families, enormous egos, and great risks. In many ways, it is a family feud played out across the Straits of Florida, illustrated by the saga of a little boy. "Cuba Confidential" takes the reader on the perilous voyage made by Elián Gonzalez across the sea and into the morass of Cuban-American politics in the heart of Miami's Little Havana.

One fateful night in November 1999, 14 people boarded a small overloaded boat for a journey across the Straits of Florida. Bardach makes their sad stories very real for us. As their boat encounters difficulties, we watch them slowly drift away into the sea as they reach out to save one another. Ultimately, 11 die.

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Elián was found floating in an inner tube off the Florida coast. Bardach's extensive interviews with the friends and family members of those who perished en route to the US reveal that love, not politics or a quest for freedom, was the motivation for all those who set sail. Notably, Elián's mother, Elizabet Broton, was traveling not for her own freedom nor for her son's freedom, as argued in much of the media coverage, but to join her boyfriend in the US.

After a decade of reporting on Cuba and winning a PEN Award, Bardach has crafted the individual stories of these travelers to provide an intimate look at the value Cubans place on personal relationships.

Landing in the center of Miami's Cuban community may have been Elián's most difficult ride. Much of "Cuba Confidential" studies the heart of Little Havana. Bardach's in-depth description of politics in this unique community reveals a system with no tolerance for freedom of speech or differences of opinion. Ironically, as in Havana, there is one acceptable political line. Those who dare stray from it face threats, intimidation, bombings, and other forms of violence.

Just as Elián's father, Juan Gonzalez, cast his lot with Fidel Castro, Elián's Miami relatives relied on the Cuban American National Foundation to orchestrate their case - from media appearances to legal battles.

The political and financial influence of this conservative Cuban community is far reaching. Endless television coverage captured a glimpse of the passions involved in the conflict, but more telling is the array of powerful political figures who paid visits to Elián Gonzalez, the apparent complicity of judges who had conflicts of interest in the case because of campaign donations, and the harsh criticism dealt to Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald journalists who did not clearly advocate that Elián stay in the US.

A family affair

The private life of Fidel Castro further illustrates the theme of love and vengeance in this conflict. Bardach explores the personal aspects of the US-Cuba relationship by tracing the family ties that complicate it.

In his youth, Castro married Mirta Diaz-Balart. Her brother, Rafael, was Castro's best friend and went on to become deputy minister of the Interior. As Bardach tells it, Rafael exposed Castro's adultery and caused a bitter divorce several years later. Rafael's son, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, grew up to be a profoundly anti-Castro Cuban-American congressman with close ties to the Bush administration. Indeed, his influence with the White House may help explain the hard-line policy being pursued today.

Bardach's interviews with Castro, his family members, and his inner circle challenge some of the conventional wisdom about the indefatigable communist and his confidants. Her portrayal of Castro's brother, Raul, is particularly revealing.

Although the conservative segment of the Miami Cuban community lost considerable influence in the wake of Elián's travails, the hard-line nature of current US policy reveals that their power in the White House continues to prevail. "Cuba Confidential" brings us to the roots of that power and the nature of this conflict.

Catherine Moses teaches political science at Georgia College and State University. She is the author of 'Real Life in Castro's Cuba.'

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