Elian saga pushes US, Cuba apart

The custody struggle may have undermined the latest, warmest thaw between nations.

The battle for custody of Elian Gonzalez threatens to chill a slow warming trend in US-Cuba relations - one of the most serious rapprochements between the long-time adversaries in years.

This doesn't mean the two nations were about to swap ambassadors before the tragic case of the young refugee came between them. Improvement, in this case, is relative: the matter of a trade show here, a ball game there, and other somewhat-minor gestures.

But in the tortured history of America and the can-opener-shaped Caribbean island to its south, positive signs have been few and far between. The US and Cuba have long fought like estranged relatives, physically close yet emotionally angry, whipsawed by symbolism, too often blind to their real interests.

In short, today's bickering between the branches of Elian's family mimics what their homelands have been doing for 100 years.

"In the Gonzalez case there is a lot of the tension and contradiction of the bilateral relationship," says Juan del Aguila, an associate professor and specialist in Latin American politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

The Clinton administration took office with officials pledging to work toward a more-normalized, if not exactly normal, relationship with a nation the US regards as one of the world's last pariahs.

But throughout President Clinton's term, US policy toward Cuba has been driven by a series of emotionally charged events.

In 1994, a sudden upsurge in refugee rafters pushed the administration to negotiate repatriation terms with the regime of Fidel Castro.

In 1996, Cuban jets shot down two planes belonging to a Miami-based anti-Castro group that had strayed into Cuban airspace. That led to a tightening of the US economic embargo on Cuba, via passage of legislation that penalized the US operations of foreign firms with Cuban business.

More recently, the administration has relaxed Cuban policy somewhat regarding things such as people-to-people exchanges. A series between the Baltimore Orioles and a Cuban national baseball team went off as planned last spring - despite a Cuban crackdown on dissident journalists.

US governors have lately traveled to Cuba to talk about agricultural exports. Late last month saw the opening of a US medical trade show in Havana - a first.

"That's the pattern of US-Cuban relations. There's a warming - and then something comes along," says Terry McCoy, head of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

That "something" is often an action (some would say provocation) on the part of President Castro. Just about every US president since Dwight Eisenhower has had some kind of major run-in with the fatigue-clad leader.

John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course. Lyndon Johnson faced the first big refugee boatlift, from the port of Camarioca.

The Ford administration faced the dispatch of Cuban troops to African wars. Jimmy Carter had the Mariel boatlift. Ronald Reagan dealt with Cuban assistance to Nicaragua's Sandinistas.

Not that the pre-Castro period was a honeymoon of halcyon days. Ever since the Spanish-American War of 1898 cut Cuba's colonial ties with Spain, Cuba has resented the colossus to the north - as if it were an overbearing parent. America has often judged Cuba an ungrateful irritant - as if it were a wayward child.

"In the last 100 years, you can't find six months when the relationship made both sides happy," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

To Mr. Mead, Castro's goal has long been to keep Cuba politically and culturally isolated from the United States, while making that isolation appear to be America's fault.

In the past year or so, the Clinton administration has quietly broken the habit of allowing Castro to drive US Cuba policy, says Mead. Thus US officials didn't react when Cuba passed a vague law making it a crime for Cubans to "collaborate" with American attempts to destabilize the island.

Administration officials have been determinedly low-key on Elian's future, say a number of experts. By insisting it is a matter that should be handled via normal legal processes, they have tried to keep the boy from becoming a point of symbolic, country-to-country confrontation.

That does not appear to have been Castro's approach. From the erection of a giant Elian billboard in front of the US Interests Section in Havana, to the government-run greetings for Elian's grandmothers when they returned from their recent US visit, the Cuban government appears to have done much to make him a symbol of perceived Yankee imperialism.

"In the shorter run, [the Elian case] has made relations more difficult," says Mr. McCoy. "It will probably be very difficult to move ahead in any area, with migration policy being the most obvious one."

Whether the relationship suffers long-term damage will depend crucially on how the case is resolved. Thus small children, sadly, become aspects of larger struggles between nations, about which they know nothing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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