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An Adult’s Game of Child’s Play

E. Benjamin Skinner is a research associate for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations

The latest spat in the 40-year contest of wills between Fidel Castro and the U.S. government is not taking place on the well-manicured lawns of a professional baseball field. Sadly, it is a domestic dispute playing out in a living room in Little Havana, and a baseball has been replaced by a 6-year-old boy.

While Elian Gonzalez quaked in front of reporters, staring at the floor and whispering responses pre-approved by his Miami relatives, Castro thundered that “Heaven and Earth will be moved if this ‘kidnapping’ is not quickly rectified.” The boy was rescued after surviving the sinking of a boat carrying illegal Cuban migrants to the United States. His mother and stepfather were among those who drowned, and now his father is demanding that his son be returned to Cuba.

The Cuban leader swiftly seized on the boy’s plight as an example of the kind of tragedy the United States fosters with its immigration policy for Cuban refugees. Before long, a billboard-size photograph of the boy, accompanied by a throng of hysterical demonstrators, materialized in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. El lider had once again shown his magnificent ability to turn what should have been a routine, if heart-wrenching, custody case into an international political crisis.

But, as usual, he couldn’t have done it without some help from his friends. For years, Castro has been able to manipulate the Cuban American lobby, and through it the U.S. government, to achieve his most important goals: maintenance of his power through isolation of the island and deflection of all blame for that isolation onto the Yanqui devils.

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His method has been simple and mischievous. He has provoked the Cuban American right into frothing madness at every turn, thereby co-opting its powerful lobby in Washington to press the United States to cut Cuba off from U.S. ideas.

But like an overpaid baseball prima donna, Castro has learned to infuriate his sponsor without losing his salary. Remittances from Miami to relatives on the island, estimated at $600 million annually, continue to prop up the regime by providing vital reserves of hard currency.

Castro first recognized in 1961 that the exile community could be his security blanket. After the Bay of Pigs, he downplayed the fact that the invaders were poorly organized exiles and instead announced that he had vanquished the 800-pound gorilla across the Straits of Florida. Within Cuba, opposition groups disbanded, and the armed forces grew in size and strength as ordinary Cubans were given tangible reasons to believe the paranoid hype of their leader.

But in the early, post-Soviet 1990s, Cuban American influence began to wane in Washington as Cuba seemed less and less of a national-security threat. Castro became worried. He was forced to allow some small businesses to begin operating again, and he started courting international investors: denying globalization, he conceded, was “like denying gravity.” International eyes began scrutinizing his human-rights violations with renewed vigor, and he was forced to allow some open demonstrations of dissent.

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So in 1996, Cuban MIGs shot down two Cessnas piloted by Cuban Americans, setting into motion Cuba’s U.S. policymaking machine. The Cuban American National Foundation lobbied harder than ever, and Congress responded by passing the embargo-tightening Helms-Burton Act. Buffeted by the deaths of U.S. citizens and electoral pressure from Florida and New Jersey, Clinton signed the internationally unpopular law.

Like old times, Castro was again the untouchable superstar. He cracked down on dissent, legislating against “conspiring” with American citizens. More important, the tightening of the embargo provided a handy excuse for the country’s severe economic woes. The reason you make less than $1,500 a year, Castro told his people, lies 90 miles to the north.

His victory was short-lived. The 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II, on the surface a legitimizing event, may turn out to be the regime’s death knell. The U.S. government, which allowed Cuban Americans to return to the island for the papal visit, began slowly and explicitly encouraging people-to-people contacts, including expanding and facilitating “two-way exchanges among academics, athletes, scientists and others.”

Lately, the only battle Cuba has won was over the Baltimore Orioles. Last month’s Ibero-American Summit was not pretty for the old comandante, with his supposed allies openly criticizing his record on human rights. Mexico, the country from which Castro launched his revolution 40 years ago, sent its foreign minister to meet with dissident groups. The Cuban president stood by as his country was recognized universally for what it has been since 1959: a repressive dictatorship.

So Castro did what he has always done. He baited his most predictable prey. He blasted his “enemies” in Miami for stealing Elian from his true family and labeled those who would be deciding the custody case in Florida “mercenary and venal, corrupt to the very marrow of their bones.” More ominously, he threatened to hinder cooperation on immigration issues.

The Cuban American National Foundation went for it, replicating Castro’s crass tactics by placing the boy’s picture on fliers and posters and exerting intense pressure on the Clinton administration to keep the boy in the country. But will the U.S. government bite, too?

Remarkably, early indications are that the United States will not. Despite some behind-the-scenes administrative bumbling by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it appears the administration may not do Castro’s bidding and move backward on policy.

The administration should scrupulously work to ensure that Elian’s case receive a fair hearing and that the boy’s father and grandparents be afforded the utmost consideration and opportunity to voice their opinions. President Bill Clinton must iterate his desire to hold this week’s planned U.S.-Cuba immigration talks, which are intended to strengthen the 1995 accord that sought to reaffirm the two countries’ “common interest in preventing unsafe departures from Cuba.”

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Castro has threatened to boycott these talks, but such an act would visibly denigrate the memory of the 10 rafters, including Elian’s mother, who died two weeks ago. It would be an awful move politically for a man who is beginning to see that he doesn’t have many friends left.

Undoubtedly, as he gets more desperate, Castro will try more impish tricks. Clinton must be the one who refuses to play the same old game by continuing to foster new people-to-people contacts with the island. He must open channels for the free exchange of ideas between the two peoples, without resorting to sloganeering or ultimatums. *


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