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A Times Editorial

Post-Elian effects

After all the controversy surrounding Elian Gonzalez, in the end, it may have positive political consequences for U.S.-Cuba relations.

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 29, 2000

The saga of Elian Gonzalez ended Wednesday the way it should have seven months ago, with the 6-year-old boy returning home to Cuba with his father. By refusing to prolong the political circus that Elian's Miami relatives masqueraded as a custody case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rule of law and affirmed the primacy of parental rights. Most Americans will embrace the decision.

Despite all the subplots that made this story an international soap opera -- Elian's survival as a castaway in the shark-filled Florida Straights, the Gonzalez family's complex divisions, the hordes of demonstrators in Cuba and Miami, the predawn raid in Little Havana -- Elian's story should have been a straightforward custody case, not a matter for Congress, the presidential candidates, Oprah or our highest court.

With luck, however, the case will have positive political consequences. Before Elian, Washington politicians and Miami's anti-Castro community had not realized how far removed from mainstream America they had become on U.S. policy toward Cuba.

After decades, that policy is starting to crack. Hours before Elian was allowed to head home Wednesday, the House Republican leadership agreed to allow U.S. food sales to Cuba, a largely symbolic move. While such a retreat has long been in the works, the mishandling of Elian's case by strident anti-Castro exiles helped change the politics of the Cuba bill for both political parties.

The legislation isn't perfect. It compromises the president's prerogative to impose sanctions, and it may make contact more difficult between exiles in this country and their families and friends in Cuba.

Washington still is not nearly ready to consider ending 40 years of sanctions against Cuba altogether. The emerging agreement on food sales is characterized as a boon to American farmers or as a humanitarian gesture to ordinary Cubans. President Clinton, at a news conference Wednesday, laid parameters for his own administration, declaring he would sign a food-sales law but not loosen sanctions any further.

Still, Elian's seven months here marked a chronology of progress. Many Miami exile leaders began moderating their rhetoric, looking toward shaping Cuba in the post-Castro age. After false starts, and what has become de rigueur political manipulation in Miami, our courts came around and did the right thing. That's a hallmark of democracy.

Castro has dispersed the crowds, for now, and won the promise of U.S. aid. What will he have left to rant about in those seven-hour speeches? And young Elian is going home. He lost his mother, but he finally has been reunited with the rest of his immediate family. He will never forget the dog, the trips to Disney and the material treasures bestowed upon him in America. And if the political momentum generated by his story helps to alter the failed equilibrium of U.S.-Cuba relations, Elian may one day soon receive the greater gift of self-determination.

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