After Elian

In Havana recently they demonstrated with all the government-fomented, anti-American vitriol of which the Castro regime is capable. The crowds were bused in. They were told where to stand. The flags they were to wave were issued to them. The political officers and block captains gave them their lines to scream and shout.

They branded the Cuban relatives of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, who are caring for him in Miami until his fate is decided, "criminals," "terrorists," and "wolves." One speaker declared them the "torturers of [Elian's] innocence."

Back in Miami, the only tormenting Elian seemed to be getting was from his new sharp-toothed puppy. But if his present keepers are not the demons the Castro regime makes them out to be, politics are clearly also in play on the American side of the narrow waters that divide Cuba from Florida.

All the publicity generated by the Cuban-American community is designed to show that Elian is happier here than in communist Cuba. Politicians are maneuvering to postpone the ultimate decision on his fate. He's been subpoenaed to appear before Congress; a senator wants a law to make him an American citizen.

Elian, of course is the little Cuban boy found floating in the sea Nov. 25 lashed to an inner tube, after the small boat in which he and others were fleeing from Cuba to Florida sank.

His mother was among those drowned. Whether he should remain with Cuban-American relatives or be returned to Cuba and his father, from whom his mother was divorced, has put him, with his sad little smile, at the center of a major international debate.

One would think, after the torment he has already undergone, that Elian's ordeal should not be prolonged. But deciding whether he would have a happier life in America, or with his father in communist Cuba, does not make for an easy answer. His father, Juan Miguel, protests his faith in Castro, and told Time magazine: "This country is where I can teach my son the values I want him to learn." Clearly, Elian's mother did not share that view, for she gave her life to get him away from Cuba and to America.

In a cruel dictatorship like Cuba, it is hard to discern truth from lies. Would Elian's father tell a different tale if he could come to America, bringing his new family with him, and speak without fear of Castro's retribution? We will never know, for Castro will not take that risk.

As Robin Meyer, a US foreign service officer stationed at the US Interests Section in Havana before being expelled by the Cuban government for monitoring human rights there, told Freedom House: "There is no freedom in Cuba. There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of assembly ... [and] speaking against government officials brings a two-year sentence for 'disrespect' - double if you mention the name of Fidel or Raul Castro. [You] can be put away for four years for 'rebellion' or simply 'dangerous-ness.' "

Castro has seized upon Elian's case to mount a bitter attack upon the US.

Ironically, this new onslaught comes at a time when a more moderate Cuban approach might exploit shifting American attitudes toward Cuba.

The Cuban-American community in Florida is no longer as united as it once was and has differences of viewpoint as to how Cuba should be approached. Within a year, a new administration will be in power in Washington, and this, too, provides an opportunity for a review of American policy toward Havana.

Some American businessmen, eyeing economic opportunity in Cuba, argue for lifting the current United States embargo against trade. Even some Americans, opposed to a blanket repeal of the embargo, suggest there could be an easing of restrictions against selling medical and pharmaceutical supplies to Cuba, in exchange for some indications of political reform and democratic movement by Castro.

Yet Castro remains obdurate, and after a string of cranky diplomatic offensives in 1999, the respected Financial Times found him showing "signs of distinctly obsessive behavior."

This has caused some American specialists on Cuba to lean to the "Gotterdammerung" theory - the theory that despite prospects of easing the American embargo, Castro is in a rage and is mobilizing Cuban opinion for a confrontation with the US. "Could it be," asks one, "that he is getting ready for his grand finale?"

Too bad that little Elian has become a pawn in Castro's paranoid confrontation with the US.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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