Why Cuban Exiles Are Staking So Much on the Elian Struggle

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Juan Miguel Gonzalez could, of course, arrive in the U.S., denounce Fidel Castro, thank his uncle Lazaro for protecting little Elian, and buy a season ticket to the Marlins.

But failing such a dramatic turnabout, the writing is on the wall in the Elian Gonzalez case: Despite political maneuvering by the anti-Castro exiles and their allies on Capitol Hill; despite a battery of lawyers pursuing every loophole in the legal system; despite apocalyptic threats to turn Miami's Little Havana into another Waco, Elian Gonzalez looks set to return home to Castro's Cuba.

But the demonstrators who gather outside Lazaro Gonzalez's home each day with promises to block the little boy's removal may be less concerned about finding themselves on the wrong side of the law than about finding themselves on the wrong side of history.

"Many of the most passionate people out there on the streets are the Cuban exiles of an older generation," says TIME Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett. "They're holding on to the idea that the embargo and pressure from the U.S. will force Castro out of power. And one of the things that makes them so desperate in this case is that they're seeing the rest of the country moving away from the embargo and toward the idea of engagement as a way to democratize Cuba."

To be sure, it's hard to see, 38 years after it began, what the embargo has achieved to unseat the dictator. Most Cuba analysts, as well as the dissident community based on the island itself, argue, in fact, that the embargo actually shores up Castro's power by giving his propagandists an easy excuse for the economic hardship the country has suffered since the 1991 collapse of his Soviet patron (which had subsidized Castro's revolution to the tune of some $7 billion a year). Castro has a monopoly on the media in Cuba, and has used the embargo — and the Elian Gonzalez case — to paint Washington as hostile to all Cubans.

The U.S. remains the only significant country in the world to maintain an embargo against Cuba, and it does so because of the electoral strength of the anti-Castro lobby in Florida and New Jersey rather than because a majority of those in the corridors of power thinks it's a sensible policy. European and Latin American governments have trade and diplomatic relations with Havana, and interact with the dissident community on the island rather than with the U.S.-based exiles. And when Washington, under the auspices of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, sought to penalize foreign companies doing business with Cuba, it was sharply slapped down as being in violation of World Trade Organization rules.

Elian Gonzalez was fated to arrive in Florida at a time when the anti-Castro lobby was desperately looking for an issue on which to anchor a counteroffensive against Washington's incremental moves to relax the embargo. No sooner was the boy out of the hospital than his face had appeared on posters printed by exile activists to protest Cuba's attendance at World Trade Organization talks in the U.S. last December. But while fear of messy protests may have kept Castro away from Seattle, the exiles are being forced to confront the reality that he has, for the most part, broken out of the international isolation they had hoped would force his overthrow — and that's a bitter pill to swallow for the generation of exiles who have dreamed for decades of a triumphant return to their beloved homeland.

The drive to "save" Elian may, in fact, reflect a generational concern, even if it contains mixed messages — exile activists insist that sending Elian home to grow up in Castro's Cuba would be profoundly inhumane, and yet it's hard to imagine that a strongman who's about to turn 74 will maintain his grip much longer. But the decline of the embargo and emboldening of home-based dissidents and institutions such as the Catholic Church — as well as the considerable hostility toward the Miami leadership displayed on Cuba's streets during protests over Elian — suggest that post-Castro Cuba may not simply turn back the clock and revert to the pre-Castro country from which the older generation of Miami exiles were driven.

Although many second-generation exiles are out there on the front lines fighting to keep Elian in the U.S., most of their generation are unlikely to share their parents' passion. "Those who were born here aren't simply Cubans," says Padgett. "They're Cuban-Americans. They look at Cuba as the place their parents are from; not necessarily as the place to which they're planning to return. Their lives and careers are here. Also, they're able to see beyond Fidel, to look at how Cuba can be changed after he's gone. But many of the older generation can't see beyond getting rid of Fidel."

For the older generation, the battle to save Elian from Castro's Cuba be a way of renewing their own faith and identity. But the reality remains that Elian Gonzalez is likely to grow up in a world from which both Castro and his fiercest foes have departed. It must be hoped that he may transcend the trauma their battle has visited upon him.