In their near-fanatic focus on a small tree named Elian, the Miami Cubans may be jeopardizing their foreign policy forest.
That possibility lies in the fact that their stubborn unreasonableness could have the result of putting Cuba policy back on the table--even if Saturday's dramatic events settle the matter of Elian.
A rethinking of that policy is long overdue, of course. What has kept it from happening is that few politicians with clout--and zero presidential candidates--have dared defy the Miami Cubans, for fear of losing Florida's huge pool of electoral votes.
The Miami Cubans constitute a fairly small minority of the state's electorate. But a small, cohesive group willing to vote on the basis of a single criterion can often frustrate the desires of a larger group whose members care about a number of issues.
The Miami Cubans certainly qualify as that single-issue constituency. Castro is, for them, the embodiment of evil. The only thing worth discussing is how to bring him down. Any talk of ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba is the moral equivalent of cutting a deal with Satan. That may be the principal reason the embargo remains in place after nearly four decades.
The policy, whatever its Cold War anticommunist value, hasn't made sense for years. The rationale for clamping down on communist Cuba was that its international sponsors were using the island to spread communism in the hemisphere. Well, one of those sponsors, China, is now our trading partner. The other, the Soviet Union, has ceased to exist, and its chief remnant, Russia, has abandoned communism. In what conceivable way does Cuba remain a threat to our interests?
The embargo hasn't made sense in moral terms. Castro remains fit and sassy while his people suffer. Indeed, the chief argument of the Miami Cubans for not allowing Elian Gonzalez to return to his father and Cuba is that Cuba is such an awful place: poor, oppressive and lacking in the opportunities the youngster would find in the United States.
But one of the reasons Cuba remains so poor--and, I'm convinced, one of the reasons it remains both communist and beholden to Castro--is the embargo. The embargo's effects include poorer-than-necessary health care, malnutrition and under-exploitation of Cuba's potential for tourism. The United Nations and major human rights organizations have condemned the embargo repeatedly.
Perhaps the embargo's most conspicuous failure is that it hasn't worked on its own terms. Castro, now nearly 74, is as much in power today as he was when President John F. Kennedy imposed the embargo in 1961. He's more likely to die of old age than to be deposed by the embargo we persist in maintaining.
Nor is there much evidence the American people want to keep the embargo. It's in place almost entirely because of the Miami Cubans who, as certified anticommunists and, in some cases, personal victims of expropriation of their property, have held the moral (or at least political) high ground.
But their behavior over the past four months--and continuing--may have offended enough people to embolden politicians to rethink our Cuba policy. I'm thinking not merely of the shameless exploitation of Elian (they're doing it, of course, to prevent Castro from exploiting him!) or their obviously sincere notion that to return the boy to Cuba is to condemn him to the hell he only recently escaped.
I'm thinking, too, of the truly disrespectful treatment of the endlessly patient Janet Reno, who, like an ever-hopeful Charlie Brown, kept kicking at a football that's no longer there, because Lucy--in the person of Uncle Lazaro--had snatched it away at the last second.
It's great sport for a while, but then sympathies began to flow toward the hapless Charlie.
Even if it's true that the Miami Cubans are losing sympathy and with it clout on their single most important issue, that doesn't mean that Castro is necessarily gaining sympathy.
My hope is that we'll at least be able to discuss our Cuba policy again. Just last week, Congress asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to begin an official investigation of the effect of the embargo on U.S. and Cuban economic interests. The report is to be submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee by February. That's not a lot. But it's a start.