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Miami’s Cubans stronger than ever

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A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in the Elian Gonzalez case, and Elian returned with his family to Cuba. Many predicted the defeat of the Miami relatives' effort to keep Elian in Miami would lead to a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Elian's case appeared to be the first leak in a weakening dike. The Cuban American community in Miami, in its handling of Elian, seemed to suffer a stunning political and public relations defeat.

Its leaders showed themselves to be single-minded zealots — emotional, unreasonable, even fanatical, driven by wild-eyed anti-Castroism. Many predicted the power of this community to enact national legislation, destroy political careers and intimidate federal officials was broken. That prediction was wrong.

Today, Miami's Cuban Americans are stronger than ever. To lead their cause among the Senate Democrats, they have signed on a powerful new recruit, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, to replace their old Democratic champion, Robert Torricelli of New Jersey.

With Jesse Helms, R-N.C., as his partner, Lieberman is leading an effort to appropriate $100 million "to speed Cuba's transition to democracy." That the Cuban American community can persuade a presidential aspirant such as Lieberman to fund its Miami-based efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro only shows that its clout is still potent.

That kind of influence isn't surprising in light of the Miami community's role in the last presidential election. Surely the White House is not oblivious to the debt of gratitude George W. Bush must feel for the electoral support he received from this important Florida voting bloc.

That gratitude is manifested in the appointment of Otto Reich, a Cuban American, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric Affairs, and in the designation of Sen. Helms' staffer, Roger Noriega, as ambassador to the Organization of American States.

It's only a slight overstatement to say that Miami's Cuban American community soon will be shaping U.S. policy toward all of Latin America. One test of that hypothesis will be whether President Bush continues to suspend the punitive enforcement provisions of the Helms-Burton Act, which are up for review in mid-July.

When the battle for Elian was at its most intense, predictions circulated as to what would happen to the boy if his Cuban father successfully returned him to Cardenas, their home town. "Elian will become the poster boy for the revolution," was the most common prediction. "He will be paraded with Fidel Castro in every city, town and village throughout Cuba." We also heard that Elian would be "brainwashed and turned into a robot for the revolution." Some of the most extreme elements in Miami predicted Elian would be placed in a concentration camp and tortured.

These predictions, too, were wrong. Elian's father, Juan Miguel, has largely succeeded in protecting his son from both the propaganda machinery of the Cuban government and the prying North American media. Juan Miguel has returned to his home town and his job as a waiter. And Elian has returned to his family, to his school and to the life of a typical Cuban 7-year old. From all reports, Elian is happy and healthy, spending time with a baby brother who arrived last month.

But in truth, it may be too early to say the predictions in either case are wrong. The American people won't soon forget the way the Cuban American community tried to turn an innocent boy into a weapon against Castro. Although reports of the demise of the Cuban American National Foundation were premature and exaggerated, it's inevitable that U.S. policy toward Cuba will change as American attitudes change. Elian's case merely started the process.

Similarly, Elian's life can never again be truly normal, no matter how hard his father may try to protect him. And so it is inevitable that his life will ultimately be touched and shaped by his fame.

It's not far-fetched to think that Elian's life and U.S-Cuba relations may one day intersect again. One can only hope it will be a happier meeting the second time around.

Craig, a partner in the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly, represented Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father, in the Elian Gonzalez matter.