Time for Elian to go back home to Cuba


WASHINGTON -- The decision of a federal appellate court in the Elian Gonzalez case to reject the notion that a 6-year-old boy is competent to seek political asylum on his own against the desires of his parent is such common sense that it's a wonder it took the three judges involved more than the wink of an eye to hand it down.

That fact hasn't stopped the boy's relatives in Miami from seeking a review, enabling him to stay in this country a while longer. But the time is long past when common sense also needs to be served by sending Elian back to Cuba with his father and the entourage sent here to make his waiting period more bearable.

The anti-Castro Cuban community predictably has again worked itself into a lather over the ruling. But it isn't likely it will find much support now from the two presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, who flirted with that community earlier by calling for a family court to resolve the issue and expressing reservations about the Justice Department's use of force in reuniting son and father.

The decision, in fact, takes Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush off the hook and, barring some unforeseen reprieve for that return trip to Cuba, relegates the whole story to the blip it deserves to be in the 2000 presidential campaign. It seems incredible now that it took on the dimensions it maintained only a few weeks ago, when the country, and the candidates, seemed mesmerized by it.

The phenomenon says a lot about the perspective of the American public and news media when a story like this one hits.

Certainly as a human-interest yarn it had all the heart-rending elements: a boy and his mother trying to escape a communist-regime for freedom; the mother drowning and the boy surviving with, it's said, the help of lovable dolphins and a courageous (one-day) fisherman; the fight of the boy's Cuban relatives to save him from a life under communism; his father's fight to get him back.

In the heat of the Cold War, the saga might have deserved all the attention it got. With a still-existing Soviet Union playing the heavy in behalf of its client Caribbean state, the incident could have taken on frightening dimensions. But the Cold War is over and so is the Soviet Union, and Fidel Castro remains no more than an occasionally irritating flea on the back of the world's only superpower.

Who believes that young Elian on return will be persecuted for his flight from communism in the arms of his mother? Rather, the prospect is for a triumphal hero's welcome with his father, and royal treatment, as much as Cuba can afford, as Mr. Castro makes the most of the episode for local consumption.

The appellate court's ruling rightly reduced the whole matter to a legal judgment. It didn't question the right of a 6-year-old to apply for asylum but ruled that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was within its rights to assert "executive discretion" in saying that "absent special circumstances, the only proper adult to represent a 6-year-old child is the child's parent. "

That "the parent lives in a communist-totalitarian state (such as Cuba) in and of itself does not constitute a special circumstance requiring the selection of a non-parental representative," the court said. In other words, the court told Uncle Lazaro to take a hike.

The judges also brushed aside the relatives' argument that if Elian "were returned to Cuba he would be used as a propaganda tool for the Castro government and would be subjected to involuntary indoctrination in the tenets of communism."

The court acknowledged "as a widely accepted truth, that Cuba does violate human rights and fundamental freedoms and does not guarantee the rule of law to people living in Cuba." But, the judges said, in effect, so what? In the era of Joe McCarthy, those circumstances may have made a potent argument, but not today.

Let's hope the last appeals are dismissed quickly, Elian and his father are sent home where Mr. Castro can have his little celebration and the rest of us can get back to the excitement of Al Gore vs. George W.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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