New energy, and more unity, for Cubans in US

Elian Gonzalez is undeniably the talk of the nation, but the boy's future is the one thing George Vazquez of Miami does not discuss with his own father.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Vazquez, who grew up here in the nation's largest Cuban-American enclave, and his father, an anti-Castro Cuban exile, do not see eye to eye.

"You want to know if I think [Elian] should go back?" Vazquez asks, looking around apprehensively. "Probably," he says softly. Then, more forcefully: "Yeah, I do. If his father is ... fit, he should go back."

That's an unorthodox position here, but Vasquez's daring to be different underscores a values shift among a new generation of US-born Cuban-Americans. Moderate, more in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba, these young people don't necessarily see the battle against Fidel Castro as theirs to fight.

Of course, the case of a little boy lost at sea appears to be reuniting two generations that have been drifting apart politically - at least in the short term.

"The Elian incident comes at a time when the hard-line right was losing support among younger Cubans," says Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University here. "Now it is no longer viewed as a dinosaur, but as a leader of the community."

Indeed, Elian's case has regalvanized Cuban-Americans, brought nearly 2 million of them together again for one cause. A recent poll shows that 86 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami think Elian should be allowed to stay with relatives in the US, rather than be returned to communist Cuba to live with his father. Yesterday's announcement by Attorney General Janet Reno reiterating the US position that Elian should go back is only likely to further stir the community.

For Cuban-American hard-liners who've struggled for years to woo the younger generation, the case of Elian Gonzalez comes in the nick of time.

"He is the Messiah," says Jos Basulto over lunch of fish, rice, and sweet plantains at a restaurant in Little Havana. "He has become a catalyst for the Cuban community. His mystique is like that of a newborn child, if you will."

Mr. Basulto is president of Brothers to the Rescue, a group that helps private pilots fly over the Straits of Florida to look for refugees fleeing the communist island nation. He represents a brand of vocal exiles who have been fighting President Castro since he took power in 1959.

But after more than 40 years, the fight's appeal was fading, especially among Cuban-Americans born in the US, and the community was in danger of losing some of its considerable political clout. Indeed, political allegiances were even beginning to shift from solidly Republican to a bit more Democratic - a development that may now halt, says Mr. Moreno.

Through the years, Cuban-Americans amassed huge political influence for their numbers, and they are an effective ethnic lobbying group in the US, second perhaps only to the Jewish community. Almost 90 percent of the 2 million Cuban-Americans live in Florida and New Jersey - two key swing states in presidential elections.

"It is generally believed in New Jersey and in Florida [that the Cuban-American community] can influence the outcome of elections," says Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "Even at this late date, the community is able - though not as easily as it once did - to get the administration to do certain things."

But that may be more smoke and mirrors than real political clout, argues Sandra Levinson of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York. "[Cuban-Americans] have managed to convince politicians that without Florida nothing can be done. Even when the facts prove otherwise,... everyone thinks that they cannot win an election without them."

The community traditionally has been staunchly Republican, some 80 percent. But Democrats have been making inroads, and Republicans today make up 60 percent of Cuban-American voters - a sign of how values are changing and the community is becoming more multidimensional.

But the Clinton administration's decision to send Elian back to Cuba has angered many here, and experts agree that if Vice President Al Gore becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, he will have a difficult time recovering the Cuban-American vote in November's election.

Other candidates see the value in allying themselves with the Cuban-American community. "If you see how the [Elian] issue has raised itself in the presidential debates,... it shows that American politicians are still cognizant of the Cuban-American community," says Jos Cardenas, Washington director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

This group, under Jorge Mas Canosa, was once considered to be the most powerful Cuban-American lobbying group. With his death in 1997, many wondered about the community's ability to sustain momentum and effectiveness.

While even the Cuban American National Foundation agrees some momentum was lost, its leaders see a strong future for their movement - one rebuilt around a 6-year-old boy who lost his mother during their flight to freedom.

"That's why they jumped on this issue," Ms. Levinson says. "It gives them tremendous publicity ... and a chance to talk about democracy and freedom."

Words like democracy and freedom are, in fact, the ones that spring most often from the lips of Cuban exiles whose struggle against Castro goes on after all these years. Some even admit to habit. But what is it about the case of Elian Gonzalez that has the Cuban-American community turned upside down?

"It has such powerful emotional resonance in the community because thousands came over ... without their parents," Moreno says. "This is not something theoretical. It is very much part of their life and experience growing up."

That, says Vazquez, is something he can understand - but will never be able to relate to. "I never had to flee my country, give up everything I love.... I got my US citizenship the easy way."

*Staff writer Warren Richey contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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