The Havana-Washington Novela Heats Up

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If a six-year-old boy weren't at the center of it, the recent battle of dramatic one-upmanship between Cuba and the United States would have all the elements of a comic farce. The boy, of course, is Elian Gonzalez. The farcical volleys of Washington-Havana fireworks involve Cuban diplomat Jose Imperatori, who was unceremoniously bundled onto a plane to Canada on Saturday following accusations that he had collaborated with INS official Mariano Faget, who is charged with spying for Havana. Imperatori then embarked on a hunger strike in an attempt to avoid deportation from Ottawa. Last week, the Cuban government made the unprecedented move of denying the U.S.'s request that Imperatori be withdrawn from his post, leading to his forced expulsion. He's appealed to Canada to grant him a stay until he has a fair hearing.

It's all reminiscent of the good old, bad old days of tit-for-tat expulsions between Washington and Moscow; as usual, there's a deeper story behind the government posturings. In this case, the timing of Imperatori's expulsion in relation to the Elian case has been called into question. Imperatori was a controversial figure during the early February U.S. visit by Elian's grandmothers. Members of the National Council of Churches, which arranged the visit, complained that he frightened the grannies by telling them their lives were in danger. But if Havana hopes to exploit the expulsion for propaganda purposes, it may be off the mark. The FBI maintains that it has evidence placing Imperatori at a meeting with Faget at a bar in the Miami airport. That alone is a breach of diplomatic protocol and under normal circumstances would be grounds for having a diplomat withdrawn. So despite the drama of Imperatori's hunger strike and the thousands of protesting college students who converged in Havana this weekend, it seems Fidel Castro and his cronies will have to make do with young Elian as their current tragic hero.