Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Dec 21 2000 (IPS) — The normalisation of relations between Cuba and the United States remains a distant point on the political horizon, even though the case of the Cuban shipwreck boy, Elián González, lessened the distance as never before in the last four decades.

Elián was rescued from the Florida straits on Nov 25, 1999, on Thanksgiving Day, one of the most important US holidays, after surviving a shipwreck that claimed the life of his mother and of 10 other illegal Cuban emigrants.

The boy, who celebrated his sixth birthday while in Miami, was caught in a family custody battle that raged on for seven months and had profound repercussions on the decades-old Cuban-US tensions.

The Elián case, unlike any other, put to the test the accords signed in 1994 and 1995 to ensure the safe and orderly migration of Cubans to the United States, an issue that brought the two countries to the negotiating table for the first time in nearly 40 years.

The story of the ‘balserito,’ or little rafter, as Elián is often referred to in Cuba, reflects the tragedy of thousands of Cuban families that are divided by often irreconcilable political differences. It also highlighted the risk of death faced by anyone who takes to the sea in fragile rafts or boats with the dream of living in the United States.

The tenacious battle over Elián between his father, Juan Miguel González, and his great uncle Lázaro González, a Miami resident who US authorities gave custody of the boy following the rescue, quickly spilled over into the political arena.

Juan Miguel González had the support of the Cuban government from the first day of his efforts to win the return of his son, which finally occurred last June 28.

It was a happy ending for the schoolboy and the González family in Cuba, as well as for Havana and Washington, which, for the first time in a long while, found something on which to agree: the common objective of reuniting a family.

“It was a shared victory,” said Cuba’s President Fidel Castro, who personally headed the campaign to pressure the United States to return the boy to his father on the socialist-governed island.

Castro mobilised the entire country of 11 million in demanding Elián’s repatriation, a “patriotic crusade” that helped him to reinforce the image of popular consensus behind the socialist project, even as the country was embroiled in its tenth year of economic crisis.

The major losers in the case were the González relatives in Miami, the influential Cuban-US congressional lobby group and the Cuban exiles represented by the Cuban-American National Foundation, who did everything in their power to prevent the boy’s repatriation.

Antonio Aja, assistant director at the University of Havana’s Centre for International Migration Studies, commented that the “extreme right of southern Florida was unaware that it had lost the battle from the beginning.”

The sector played a card that went against the idea of a united family, one of the “sacrosanct” elements of US society, Aja pointed out.

In the United States, and primarily in Florida, live more than a million people of Cuban origin, counting immigrants, exiles and descendants.

Aja told IPS that since the Elián case, which “left the intransigent attitudes toward Cuba on weak footing,” one can perceive in that community a growing tendency in favour of developing closer ties with the island.

The expert cautioned, however, that in south Florida in particular there is an enclave of “the Cuban community’s right-wing” that dominates the local economy and the communications media.

“As long as that situation is maintained, we will not see any substantial modification in the attitude towards Cuba,” he said.

But national media coverage of the young shipwreck survivor contributed – though probably unintentionally – to changing the image that US society had of the island, satanized for years by the anti-Castro exiles.

Havana, meanwhile, took great care in recognising the support of the US public as the case wore on.

“They were seven months in which much was said on the same issue, which involved US society and got it to voice its different points of view. I believe it had a devastating impact on the enemies of Cuba in that country,” Cuba’s parliamentary president, Ricardo Alarcón, told IPS.

According to Alarcón, the chief negotiator with Washington on migration issues, the repercussions of the case did not begin at zero, but rather occurred on the fertile ground of increasing doubts in the United States about its embargo policy against Cuba, in force since the early 1960s.

The rising interest among economic sectors in eliminating barriers for negotiating with Havana, particularly evident in the last two years, means that US President Bill Clinton, of the Democratic Party, ends his term in office with a legacy that is more favourable to trade rapprochement.

It was Clinton, however, who enacted the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, which intensified the trade and economic embargo against Cuba with punitive measure for third countries that engage in business with the island involving properties the Castro government appropriated from US citizens.

Nevertheless, there are currently some 370 companies based on foreign investment in Cuba, which maintains commercial relations with more than 100 countries and counts Canada and the European Union among its leading partners, which are also the US’s economic rivals.

Though the official US discourse maintains the line of ideological confrontation, the island receives visits nearly every month from US entrepreneurs who are exploring the possibilities of business deals. They are the ones throwing their voices behind legislative efforts to reduce the blockade by pursuing a more pragmatic policy that rewards democratic changes in Cuba.

Nearly coinciding with Elián’s return to the island, the powerful Cuban-US lobby achieved a victory – they won the inclusion of strict conditions to a bill for facilitating US sales of food and medicine to Cuba.

Republican Party lawmaker Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said of the amendment approved in October as part of the agricultural budget bill that the United States would not give in on its firm stance against giving even one penny to Castro’s tyranny.

The law lifted some of the embargo’s restrictions on food and medicine, but neither the US government nor US banks are allowed to finance the transactions. Cuba is also prohibited to request loans for the purpose, such that any imports would have to be paid in cash.

“The bill proposed by lawmakers with the support of the agricultural sector, which could have meant a step in the right direction, was dismantled. The real solution lies in normalising relations between the two countries and lifting the genocidal blockade,” says a statement from the Cuban foreign ministry.

Migration expert Aja pointed out that “there is an attitude among representatives of the US economy, at least among some of them, that favours some form of closer relations” with Cuba, and this has broken the “inertia” of the past.

He believes that the decisive factor for the future, as far as Washington is concerned, is Cuba’s economic and social stability.

“The United States is totally against our system and ideology, but I don’t think it is interested in having Cuba as an element of crisis,” Aja said. “I believe Washington wants there to be tranquillity and security here.”

During the campaign leading up to the Nov 7 elections, the Republican Party’s George W. Bush agreed with his Democrat rival Al Gore that little Elián should remain with his relatives in Miami û and not returned to his father in Cuba.

Bush also announced that he would uphold the embargo policy against the island.

Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but Cuba recently made it known that it has no interest in completing construction on a nuclear power plant that began with aid from the now-defunct Soviet Union. The plant has been among the stickier points for the United States in relations with the island.

“Castro seems to be sending a calming message to his powerful neighbour,” commented a Latin American diplomat.


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