Politics May Dictate a Truce on Elian Handover

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Janet Reno's firm resolve to return Elian Gonzalez to his father appears to be paying off for the Clinton administration, with the mayhem threatened in Miami until last week now looking increasingly unlikely. Miami-area mayors and Cuban-American activists are to meet the attorney general on Tuesday to discuss ways of easing the handover process, which will be outlined in a letter delivered the same day to Elian's great-uncle Lazaro. The date for the handover is expected to be Wednesday or Thursday, after which Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his son may wait out the Miami relatives' appeal process in Washington.

But while discussions continue over how, where and to whom Elian should be handed over, the question of whetherhe should be reunited with his father appears to have faded from the agenda. And even the demonstrators gathered outside Lazaro's Little Havana house now appear to have resigned themselves to the inevitability of Elian's transfer to his father's care. "We have fought the battle," Ramón Saul Sánchez, who has led demonstrations outside the house, told the New York Times. "What Elián is going to remember is that these people here did not betray him." His use of the past tense is significant, however: Sanchez explained that rather than a confrontation, the demonstrators planned one last candlelight vigil, adding that "We will cope."

The sea change in atmospherics surrounding the handover appears to reflect political realities for all parties concerned. Spurred on, no doubt, by poll numbers that consistently reflect Americans being two to one in favor of returning Elian to his father, the Clinton administration has reasserted government authority in the matter. Previously, the administration's uncertainty — and Vice President Gore's desertion — had emboldened Cuban exile community to threaten turmoil if the government attempted to remove Elian from his great-uncle's home. But Reno's approach over the past week has been to lay down the law to the Miami relatives, and then be flexible about the details of its implementation. And that's left the exile activist leadership with little choice, because a last stand in defiance of Washington in a battle that can't be won on the streets might prove fatal to their long-term political standing in the capital. But although the drift in the Elian Gonzalez saga is now away from confrontation, nothing is quite certain in a case that has ignited such fierce emotions.