From the Folks Who Brought You Elian, a Sequel

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Elian Gonzalez may be back at school in Cuba, but the Cuban-American activists who lost their battle to keep him here could be about to get a second chance. The U.S. Coast Guard has found nine survivors and one fatality in the vicinity where a hijacked Cuban plane crashed en route to Florida Tuesday, opening what could become a new chapter in the politically fraught relationship between Washington and Havana on immigration matters. Although U.S. law requires that Cubans intercepted at sea be sent home — as opposed to those who qualify for asylum by reaching the beach — the fact that some of the survivors are injured may prompt officials to take them to U.S. soil for treatment. At that point they'll almost certainly become a rallying point for Cuban-American activists in the way that Elian did after his rescue in the Florida Straits last Thanksgiving.

Further complicating the situation is the matter of terrorism: After all, unlike the boat that carried Elian, the Cuban plane was hijacked, adding to the pressure on the U.S. to deny asylum to the perpetrators. After all, no matter what its views on the state of affairs in Fidel Castro's Cuba, no U.S. administration can reward hijackers with their desired goal of asylum without questioning the effect on compromising global U.S. antiterrorism efforts.

The timing of the latest hijacking couldn't be worse for Washington. Not only is Vice President Gore at a critical stage of his battle for reelection, but Cuban officials also tell TIME that Cuban National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon is expected in Washington Thursday for two days of talks with the U.S. government over immigration matters. The two sides have engaged in a tense cooperation on immigration issues on the basis of agreements reached after waves of boat people began making the risky ocean crossing to Florida in 1994. The U.S. says Cuba isn't keeping its end of the deal, by which some 20,000 Cubans a year would be allowed to legally immigrate, while Havana insists that hijackings and tragedies like the one that killed Elian Gonzalez's mother are encouraged by a U.S. policy that extends asylum to anyone who manages to reach these shores. They're particularly chagrined that men responsible for some previous hijackings were ultimately granted asylum.

So while the Cuban authorities will be looking to the U.S. in the coming hours and days to deal harshly with those responsible for the latest hijacking, it is to be expected that their archenemies in Miami will bring to bear whatever pressure they can on Washington to allow them to remain here. And that could be the perfect setup for "Elian: The Sequel."