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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Elian and Embargo

Elian Gonzalez now has new nightmares to add to those of watching his mother drown at sea. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno may never again feel safe in her family home in Miami. And Vice President Al Gore has damaged his chances of winning the presidency by his ill-judged call to give Elian permanent residence in the United States.

But the pre-dawn raid on Saturday that rescued the little Cuban boy from the house of anti-Castro relatives in Miami and restored him to his father has done good that goes far beyond the personal. It was good both in legal and in moral terms - and the American public, despite decades of anti-Castro propaganda, had the native wit to understand that. "[Elian's father] and I do not share the same political beliefs," Reno said recently, "but it is not our place to punish a father for his political beliefs or where he wants to raise his child."

Most Americans clearly shared her sentiments. They were plainly unhappy about the behavior of the extreme anti-Castro lobby that dominates the Cuban-American community in southern Florida, and has effectively dominated U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba for four decades. They were so deeply unimpressed, in fact, that this incident has created an opportunity to change America's Cuban policy for the first time in 40 years. That could even spell the end of Fidel Castro, which would be very good indeed.

If the United States suddenly vanished, Castro's regime would probably collapse within three to six months.

It is popular resentment of U.S. arrogance, and above all of the embargo on trade and travel that Washington has imposed on Cuba, that lets Castro cloak himself in the mantle of Cuban nationalism. The economic blockade gives him a standing excuse for every shortcoming of his ramshackle regime - but now there is a chance to remove the embargo, or at least to ease it.

There is not a single foreign government on the planet that thinks U.S. policy toward Cuba is sane or effective. There are very few people in the State Department who try to defend it in private. There has been no U.S. president since Richard Nixon, with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, who did not secretly see the embargo as gross and self-defeating stupidity.

But none of them was willing to do anything about it, because that would mean taking on the Cuban-American ?migr? leaders (who are believed to control the swing vote in Florida, one of the five most important states electorally), and the apparently immortal Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (who believes the United Nations is a plot against American sovereignty), and all the people on the far right whom they could mobilize against any change of policy.

It was always possible to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, if some administration wanted to invest enough political capital in the undertaking. But it was never worthwhile, in terms of the total amount of political capital available and Cuba's position on the list of priorities. It was spent elsewhere, and Cuba was left to rot, almost literally.

What has changed now is the amount of political capital needed. It has dropped quite drastically, thanks to Elian, and may even fall within the range of the dwindling amount still available to William Jefferson Clinton.

The far right is never in the driver's seat in the United States. Its power lies in its ability to stir up the latent nationalism and paranoia of far larger numbers of normally apolitical Americans, and no doubt that was precisely the operation that the Cuban-American "refugees" who took charge of Elian Gonzalez had in mind.

But it has backfired spectacularly: Public opinion has been repelled by their crude manipulation of a vulnerable 6-year-old.

Castro, of course, was also manipulating the symbolism of Elian for all he was worth, and at first it looked as though he would emerge the winner in terms of Cuban public opinion.

But over five months, as public sympathy for Cuban-American ideological warriors weakened in the United States, so did the position of Castro, who thrives on their enmity and that of Washington. He will portray the day that Elian goes home as a triumph, but in reality he will never have been weaker.

Like Janet Reno, neither Bill Clinton nor Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has any expectation of high public office after next January. They have nothing to lose personally by making a grand gesture to begin thawing relations with Cuba. Neither does the Democratic Party, given the damage that Al Gore's waffling on the question of whether the child should go home with his father has already done to his presidential prospects.

So once the U.S. courts decide that Elian Gonzalez should go home to Cuba with his father, as they surely will in a few weeks or months, why doesn't Clinton take them home in person?

Castro would hate and fear it, understanding all too clearly the long-term menace that a Clinton goodwill visit would pose to his continued dictatorship, but he could not decently refuse it. It would gravely undermine the whole economic blockade of Cuba, even if Clinton has no power to single-handedly lift it - and it would greatly improve the chances that Elian Gonzalez will grow up in a democratic Cuba.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.