Elian case may mark turn in U.S.-Cuban relations, experts say


Years from now, when people look back at the day U.S. marshals forced Elian Gonzalez from the arms of Cuban exiles, it might be remembered as a watershed in U.S.-Cuban relations, several longtime Cuba watchers said.

The picture of U.S. officers using force against Cuban exiles symbolizes the turnabout in U.S.-Cuban relations from the days of the Cold War, analysts say.

"We have gone from an image of two nations in conflict to the two countries working together," said Wayne Smith, a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. "It is a kind of public cooperation we have never seen before."

The Clinton administration said it was merely upholding the law and not trying to send a political message. But the political overtones of the Saturday morning raid reverberated from Havana to Washington.

With bills pending in Congress to ease restrictions on food and medicine deliveries to Cuba, the fallout from the Elian saga on the diplomatic front could continue for months.

With Elian likely to remain in the news -- and with Elian's father abiding by the U.S. legal process -- sentiment among the U.S. public and politicians could favor softening policies toward Cuba and Cubans, analysts say.

"The transfer of the child to the father will likely be perceived by the media and the American public as appropriate," said John S. Kavulich II, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York City. "This reflection will be transferred to how the public perceives issues relating to Cuba."

Throughout the Elian ordeal, Cuban and U.S. officials have been in almost daily contact, analysts say. Congressmen who once had strong anti-Castro stances met with Elian's father and came away less strident.

Even as the Elian saga played out in recent months, 125 Cuban academics traveled to Miami for a conference, 300 U.S. students visited Cuba on an educational exchange program, and a U.S.-Cuba health care symposium was held.

President Clinton seems intent on using momentum from the Elian situation to foster better relations with Cuba, analysts say. In recent months, the Clinton administration has approved more flights between the two countries.

"There is a maturing relationship" between the two countries, Kavulich said. "Out of this tragedy will come a significant change in bilateral relations."

Pictures of demonstrators and the riot police mustered to control them only turn most Americans against the exiles' cause and will likely lead to more favorable U.S. policies toward Cuba, experts say.

But many Cuban exiles said they never dreamed of seeing a time when the United States would use force against them rather than Castro. And they said it makes them even more determined to fight to keep the 38-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba.

"There was too much force used, and this will be never be forgotten by the Cuban-American community," said Jamie Suchlicki, head of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.

He does not believe that the saga of the little boy will create a shift in public opinion that is more tolerant of Castro.

After Americans digest the sight of Elian being taken forcibly from his relatives, a backlash will develop against Clinton's increasingly soft stance toward Cuba, Suchlicki predicted.

"There is strong sentiment out there that this will lead to an easing of the embargo, but I think the opposite will happen," he said. "How can we support a repressive regime and use force against the people trying to fight it?"

But many analysts say the Cuban exiles suffered a decisive blow by refusing to turn Elian over to his father at the order of U.S. authorities. In the long run, they say, Americans will be more supportive of strengthening U.S.-Cuban ties because of the unyielding stance taken by the exiles in the Elian case.

"They lost in the court of public opinion," Philip Brenner, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington, said of the exiles. "The standoff has weakened the power of the Cuban-American community."

If Elian and his father remain in the United States as promised pending court appeals, it will only help the perception that the Castro government is willing to play by diplomatic rules, Brenner said.

"Abiding by the law gains more sympathy than breaking it," he said.

Poll results

Some results from a CNN-Gallup poll taken Saturday after the seizure of Elian Gonzalez by federal agents so he could be reunited with his father. When results don't total 100 percent, the remainder either didn't know or refused to answer.

As you may know, federal agents physically removed Elian Gonzalez from the home of his Miami relatives early [Saturday] morning and have taken him to Washington, D.C., to reunite him with his father. Do you approve or disapprove of that action?

Approve, 57 percent

Disapprove, 37 percent

(Two-thirds of men and just under half of women approved of the action)

Which of the following solutions do you think would be in the best interests of the boy -- for him to remain in the Unite States to live with relatives who have requested he stay here, or for him to live with his father in Cuba, as his father has requested?

Live with father in Cuba, 59 percent

Live with relatives in U.S., 27 percent

From what you know about [Saturday's] actions, do you think the government agents involved used too much force or about the right amount of force in removing Elian Gonzalez from the Miami home?

Too much, 40 percent

Right amount, 36 percent

Do you agree or disagree that the federal government did all it could to settle the situation without using force?

Agree, 54 percent

Disagree, 38 percent

The telephone poll of 613 adults was taken Saturday and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Associated Press

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