How Elian Helped Poke a Hole in Cuba Embargo

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Elian Gonzalez has gone home, but not before helping to bore a great big hole in the U.S. embargo of Cuba. House of Representatives negotiators agreed Tuesday to a compromise package of legislation that would lift the embargo on food and medicine sales to the communist island nation, although on a cash-only basis. Although the change was promoted by Washington Republican representative George Nethercutt as a sop to his state's farming interests — and despite fierce resistance from pro-embargo GOP legislators, who significantly diluted the measure by requiring that Havana be denied credits or the ability to barter — it may portend the beginning of a sea change in Cuba policy.

At a time when Washington has normalized trade relations with China and announced a gradual lifting of sanctions against North Korea and Iran, the Cuba embargo is under unprecedented pressure. And the Elian Gonzalez saga put U.S.-Cuba relations in mainstream America's spotlight in a context that proved less than flattering to the anti-Castro exile leadership that has essentially written Washington's Cuba policy since the Reagan years. While President Clinton had maintained that tradition for most of his presidency — even ignoring the advice of his foreign policy advisers to sign the Helms-Burton Act, which transformed the embargo from a presidential decree into an act of Congress, and got the U.S. in trouble for violating World Trade Organization rules — the Elian case put the White House (minus a skittish veep) on a collision course with Miami. In backing aggressive defiance of the federal government's ruling that Elian should go home to his father, which has been upheld by every federal court so far and will stand barring a remarkable turnabout from the Supreme Court this week, the Cuban-American National Foundation and its allies staked much of their political capital on a battle they look set to lose.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle showed a growing inclination to dispense with the embargo in light of changes in China policy, and even if the anti-Castro activist lobby managed to slow the pace of changes to the embargo, it's clear that they're now forced to play defense. And unless Fidel Castro does something stupid and brutish — such as his 1996 order to shoot down two unarmed aircraft carrying exile activists that had been buzzing Cuban airspace — to turn the tide, they may be defending their own goal line for some time to come.