For Cuban Exiles, Elian Became a Nightmare

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Elian Gonzalez was supposed to restore the flagging fortunes of the Cuban-American exile leadership; instead he may have turned into their worst nightmare. The six-year-old flew back to Havana Wednesday afternoon, and not only were the streets of Miami quiet, but the 38-year-old U.S. embargo of Cuba — whose cause the exile leadership hoped to bolster through their Elian campaign — appears to be crumbling too. The Supreme Court Wednesday refused to hear an appeal against the ruling by two lower courts upholding the government decision to recognize his father as his sole legal representative and therefore to send him home, paving the way for Elian to leave when the injunction against his departure expired at 4 p.m. And moderate House Republicans added insult to injury Tuesday by securing agreement from the congressional leadership for a relaxation of restrictions on selling food and medicine to Cuba, a move that while limited in its own terms marks the first major breach in President Kennedy's economic blockade of the island.

The anti-Castro exile leadership had seized on the arrival of the shipwrecked boy last Thanksgiving as a godsend in their campaign to halt the slide in Washington toward relaxing the embargo. But campaigning to keep a child separated from his sole surviving parent may have been a fatal miscalculation for a political leadership whose power and relevance are derived less from its ability to mobilize its own base than from its ability to wield influence in Washington. While the ferocity of protest in Miami initially paralyzed the Clinton administration — and prompted Vice President Gore to break ranks over the government's decision that Elian should go home to his father — opinion polls consistently found Americans almost two to one in favor of reuniting father and son. And the turning point in the case may have come when Fidel Castro acceded to attorney Greg Craig's insistence that Juan Miguel Gonzalez fly to Washington. Once the boy's father was on U.S. soil and demanding custody of his son, the Miami relatives' claim that Juan Miguel wasn't free to speak collapsed, leaving them and their backers in a no-win battle that their own momentum forced them to fight to the finish, as damaging as that might be to their long-term cause.

For Castro, sending Juan Miguel to the U.S. was obviously a risk — if he chose to defect and join his uncles in Miami, that would have been a humiliating propaganda defeat for the Cuban strongman. But failing that, Castro had nothing to lose: With ordinary Cubans incensed by a case whose meaning to them was that the U.S. might question their fitness as parents simply for living in Cuba, Castro would have reaped a political dividend even if the Miami relatives had won the case.

With Juan Miguel's arrival having forced its hand, the Clinton administration finally moved decisively at Easter, risking a public backlash for the armed raid in which Elian was seized from his Miami relatives. But Elian's obvious joy at the reunion with his father neutralized any political flak, and the congressional hearings Republicans promised within hours of the raid appear to have vanished into the ether. By returning Elian to his father and then letting the courts decide the rest, the White House knocked the wind out of any further protests in Miami or on Capitol Hill. And the fact that Congress could relax the embargo the same week that Elian looks set to go home may be a sign that the boy has helped shift U.S. attitudes to Cuba, although hardly in the way intended by his Miami relatives.