Whatever Happens, Elian Case Hurts Fla. Cubans

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The Elian Gonzalez battle may hurt Miami's Cuban exile leadership even if they win. The six-year-old boy's Miami relatives on Wednesday petitioned a federal court for political asylum for Elian, but in order to get their day in court they'll have to convince a judge that they speak for the boy. "They're trying to convince a federal judge that the boy would be in danger if he's returned to live in a communist society, and that the boy's father — who wants him back in Cuba — is speaking under duress," says TIME's Miami bureau chief Tim Padgett. "But many legal experts doubt whether a federal judge will buy that argument." Elsewhere, congressional supporters of the Cuban-American leadership are hoping that granting Elian immediate citizenship may help prevent his return, while Havana is considering sending the boy's grandmothers to fetch him, or even issuing his father a diplomatic passport to immunize him from court and congressional subpoenae if he traveled to Miami himself.

Like the Confederates at Gettysburg, however, the exile activists may have chosen to fight on terrain more favorable to their enemies. Fidel Castro has used Cuban anger at Elian's plight to shore up his own regime, and gains whether Elian returns home or stays in Miami. The prospects may be reversed for the Miami leadership: Losing the Elian case after a fierce fight will accelerate the decline in their political fortunes that has been evident since the pope's visit to Cuba two years ago. "Many people believe that this fear of losing their influence in the U.S. helped push them to fight so hard in this case, and defeat would be a major blow," says Padgett. But even victory may have a price. "The Cuban-American leadership may not have factored in the negative impact of their actions on American public opinion. With polls reflecting that a majority of Americans favor returning Elian to Cuba, even winning the case may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the Miami leadership."