THE APRIL 22 Immigration and Naturalization Service raid in Little Havana not only resulted in the long overdue return of Elian Gonzalez to his father - it also created an opening for a reconsideration of U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Behind the acrimonious human drama surrounding this 6-year-old has always been the larger, but equally polarized issue of U.S.-Cuban relations. Like Elian himself, these relations have been held hostage to the dictates of a politically powerful, albeit small, right-wing coalition centered in Dade County, Florida.
But the policy grip of the fanatical anti-Castro lobby, led by the Cuban American National Foundation which financed and often dictated the strategy, movements and statements of Elian's Miami relatives, as it has done over the years for so many elected officials and policy makers, is now at its weakest.
Having crassly turned Elian into the human symbol of its vitriol against Castro's Cuba - only to see him reunited with a father who prefers to love him rather than use him - the hard-line exile community has utterly exposed itself in front of the United States and international community.
In a supreme effort to use Elian to isolate Castro, the Cuban-American hard-liners have successfully isolated themselves.
Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to employ decisive militarist tactics to finally reunite Elian and his father will be debated for weeks to come. She would have much preferred a peaceful, conciliatory solution to what had become a protracted hostage crisis - a solution that brought the two sides of the Gonzalez family together and spared a child the trauma of a frightening raid in the early morning hours.
But after weeks of unsuccessful efforts toward that goal, and much hesitation, vacillation, and, indeed, patience, Reno did what had to be done - returning a son to his rightful parent.
There are those in the anti-Castro community who want to draw this sorry episode out further. The ubiquitous family of Lazaro Gonzalez, TV cameras in tow, continues to create a daily media circus with specious allegations of falsified photos, and their efforts to "visit" Elian at the compound outside Washington where father and son are now staying. Their Republican allies in Congress are now planning to hold hearings on the raid. But the spectacle of their efforts to continue the "Elian Show," in stark contrast to Juan Miguel's decision to remove his son from the media glare and finally bring some normalcy to his life, makes it clear who is really looking out for best interests of this child.
Now, too, is the moment for the Clinton administration to bring some normalcy into the realm of U.S. relations with Cuba. For years, Washington's posture toward Havana has been characterized by the same type of abnormal, illogical, counterproductive, and often bizarre behavior that dominated the Elian saga. For the first time in recent memory, however, conditions and circumstances are ripe for changing the framework of bilateral ties.
First of all, the anti-Castro lobby has all but self-destructed; their power of political intimidation will be severely weakened in the months to come.
For years the Cuban American National Foundation, through sophisticated political lobbying and strategic campaign donations, exercised a virtual veto over any significant change in the U.S. approach toward Cuba. Politicians with presidential aspirations - the most recent of them our pandering Vice President Al Gore - shamelessly traded a prudent political strategy for the prospects of electoral votes and dollars in Florida.
But the political ties that bind Florida and Washington have been irrevocably broken over the Elian case.
The anti-Castro crusaders in Miami are furious at the Clinton White House - they have gone so far as to suggest that the president is taking his marching orders from Fidel himself - and short of federal marshals handing Elian back to his cousin Marisleysis, there is no way to mollify them.
Now unfettered from Miami's lead anchor on Cuba policy, the Clinton administration is politically freer to take concrete steps to change America's anachronistic approach toward the island. It is also a propitious moment from the Cuban vantage point. For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. and Cuban governments have found themselves fully on the same side of a policy issue.
Throughout this crisis, there was a steady degree of cooperation and consultation. Although the two countries have cooperated on major issues such as migration before, the case of Elian Gonzalez is the most prominent example of mutual interests between the two nations garnering massive public passions on both sides of the Florida straits.
Indeed, with blanket TV coverage and Elian on the cover of Time, People, and other major magazines, the profile of Cuba as an issue in America has never been higher. The human face of this story has inevitably called public attention to the broader political issues.
Opinion polls show that U.S. citizens overwhelmingly supported the return of Elian to his father. A Gallup poll last May showed that 70 percent of Americans favored lifting the 38-year-old U.S. trade embargo; only 28 percent were opposed. With U.S. citizens currently tuned into the Cuba issue, and the vast majority of them supportive of a different policy approach, a unique opportunity exists for the Clinton administration to take some bold steps with real public backing. To be sure, Bill Clinton is a lame-duck president who has shown little leadership on Cuba for the past seven years.
But even under severe congressional restrictions, he has the latitude to act on several fronts. He can, for example, immediately lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba, particularly for Cuban-American families who are currently limited to one trip a year (and then only if they can cite a health emergency among relatives on the island), and ease limits on temporary visits of Cubans to the U.S. Had travel for such families been normalized previously, the tragedy at sea that drowned seventeen people and left Elian floating on an inner tube in the Florida Straits might never have occurred.
Clinton can also fully endorse the legislation that's about to be introduced in the House and the Senate that would lift the embargo on food and medicine to Cuba. Last year the same legislation passed in the Senate by an astounding margin of 70 to 28, only to be blocked from becoming law at the last second by the political machinations of a handful of anti-Castro members of the House. The president can move to dramatically expand licensing for U.S. businesses to invest in travel, agricultural and communications with Cuba. And he can authorize full diplomatic and military cooperation with Cuba on mutual security interests such as narcotics interdiction that would immediately benefit both U.S. and Cuban citizens.
Such actions would create momentum toward a more pragmatic and productive U.S. Cuba policy that the next president - Gore or Bush - would find hard to reverse. Clinton has nothing to lose, and U.S. interests have much to gain, from a courageous move in a new direction. The Elian saga stretched out over four excruciating months, but the complex saga of U.S. policy toward Cuba has gone on for more than four decades. As in the Elian case, it will take bold and decisive action to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. And as in the case of Elian, it is the right thing to do.
Peter Kornbluh is a policy analyst in Washington D.C. and author, most recently of Bay of Pigs Declassified: The Secret CIA Report on the Invasion of Cuba.
Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun