It will be a long time before we forget the picture flashed around the world of Elián González being rescued at gunpoint. The spectacle of INS agents forcibly entering a private home to rescue the boy alarmed those who care about civil liberties. And from that company we exclude the NRA commandos, who say the raid proves we need guns to fend off jackbooted Feds. And law-and-order pols like Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who can inveigh against "stormtroopers" but defend the cops who gun down an unarmed Amadou Diallo. And Republicans who have pushed through anti-immigrant legislation that denies illegal aliens their day in court.
The resort to paramilitary tactics to rescue the boy can be questioned in hindsight--and the Republicans, sensing the mileage to be gained from concocting a Clinton-Reno-Gregory Craig-Council of Churches-Castro plot, intend to question it to a fare-thee-well in Congressional hearings likely to be shrill and partisan. But serious civil libertarians will ask, What was the alternative? Negotiations? After months, negotiations had produced nada. You had a child virtually held hostage, the Miami Gonzálezes in contempt of the law, local officials refusing to cooperate and federal cops with a proper search warrant. Janet Reno did the right thing for the right reasons.
The Elián episode provides proof, if any is needed, that the exiles who dictate US Cuba policy are so blinded by hatred of Fidel Castro they're beyond reason. It also provoked what is likely to be an irreparable breach between the Cuban-American extremists and the Clinton Administration, which had been eager to court this voting bloc and pool of campaign donors. With the professional Castro-haters discredited and the tether between the White House and Little Havana cut, now's the time to re-examine the larger matter at hand: relations between the United States and Cuba.
By resolutely adhering to the idea that the Elián case involved a father who had the right to custody of his son, Reno, it could be said, "normalized" Cuban-US relations, placing them in the context of people rather than cold war politics. Conservative and Republican allies of the Cuban-American die-hards shelved their family values to turn Elián into ammunition for the anti-Communist cause. Had there been normal relations between the United States and Cuba--or something like it--this family-rending tragedy would not have happened. The case has exposed the absurdity of the travel and commerce embargo the United States maintains on Cuba. The hard-line anti-Castroites, who have been shedding tears over Elián's welfare and the plight of his family, have no problem with keeping medicine, food, books, athletic equipment, magazines and toys from the tykes (and grown-ups) in Cuba. Nor do they bemoan the US-imposed restrictions on travel and financial remittances that prevent Cuban-Americans from regularly visiting relatives in Cuba or sending more than modest amounts of money to their relatives. The Elián affair has demonstrated that there is no integrity in our Cuba policy: If we care so much about Cuban people chafing under the totalitarian yoke, why not drop the trade and travel ban that harms Cuban families but fails in its supposed purpose of bringing down Castro?
The Elián case could force US-Cuba relations to center-stage--that is, if the GOP sideshow doesn't steal the attention. Will President Clinton seize the moment to refashion US-Cuba relations? Four years ago, when he signed the Helms-Burton Act--which made the embargo a matter of US law, not executive order--he became the first President who can't lift the embargo alone but must persuade Congress to rescind the law. He does, however, have a say in how the embargo is shaped. And he can expand trade in some areas, including agriculture, information and tourism. Clinton could try deploying moderate rhetoric to detoxify relations between Washington and Havana. And he could push Congress. Last year a measure to end the ban on exporting food and medicine to Cuba nearly succeeded--until the Cuban-American lobby killed it.
That lobby, which has had so much clout for the past twenty years, has gone too far in the Elián affair. Polls show that 60 percent of Americans favor Reno's use of force to extricate Elián, and 68 percent oppose Congressional hearings on the raid. Will Clinton exercise leadership? Given the rising partisan heat, we have no great hopes. And his would-be successors are stuck in the past. The political tectonics have shifted. Hard-line Cuban-Americans are beyond reconciliation, while much of the country would like US-Cuba relations moved to a more normal plane.
For now, a father and son have been reunited. That's a positive outcome. But the affair has also removed the Clinton Administration from the custody of the Cuban-American lobby. It will be a policy tragedy if Clinton does not try to use this new freedom--despite GOP attacks--to take US-Cuba relations to a point where such a soap opera cannot be repeated.