- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

Stepping back for a moment from the emotions evoked by those awful pictures of the Gonzales home broken into Saturday morning by armed commando troops from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the question is whether the Elian Gonzales case will in fact result in a changed U.S. policy towards Cuba, as many believe it should. In the long term, as generations and political circumstances change, so will relations between the two countries. In the long term, of course, we will all be dead even Fidel Castro, who cannot go on forever, though it sometimes feels that way.
In the short-term, however, it is difficult to see how the Gonzales case can change the equation here in Washington vis—vis Cuba.
Looking at the White House first, President Clinton's Cuba policy from 1992 onward has been every bit as confused and incompetent as the overall handling of the Elian Gonzales case. In fact, Fidel Castro did not need to have taped recordings of Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky as some have surmised to make the president jump. There is no need for conspiracy theories here; the president is clearly still in the grips of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the riots at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas of detained Cubans from the 1979 Mariel boat lift that caused him the loss of the Arkansas governorship after just one term. A repeat of Mariel has haunted Mr. Clinton all through his dealings with the Cuban dictator.
On the other hand, there's political expediency. Cuban Americans may account for just 7 percent of the American electorate, but they make such excellent fund-raisers, and they hold the swing vote in Florida with 25 votes in the electoral college. Presidential candidates like to be on good terms with them, too.
The result has been schizophrenic. During both presidential campaigns, Mr. Clinton staked out hard-line positions on Cuba. In 1992, he outflanked President Bush in support of the Cuba Democracy Act (co-sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms.) In 1996, he did a 180-degree turn and came out in support of the Helms-Burton Bill, which penalizes companies trading in confiscated U.S. property in Cuba. Republican candidate Bob Dole had helped the bill through the Senate and when Fidel Castro shot down two small American planes flown by Brothers to the Rescue, a Miami-based group, Mr. Clinton joined the anti-Castro bandwagon.
As president, however, Mr. Clinton has tried to appease Mr. Castro. As was said of Jimmy Carter, he never saw a dictator he didn't like. Where President Bush simply stated that another Mariel boat lift would be considered an attack on the United States by Cuba, the Clinton administration panicked in 1994 when Mr. Castro opened the gates for refugees again, launching 30,000 refugees in boats towards Florida. Reversing 28 years of American policy, Mr. Clinton ordered the sorry mass of humanity interned at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and struck a deal with Mr. Castro to return future refugees to Cuba if intercepted in U.S. waters.
On trade, Mr. Clinton has consistently undermined the Helms-Burton Bill, which antagonizes Canadians and Europeans, by waiving its punitive provisions with clockwork precision every six months. Despite supporting both of Mr. Helm's Cuba bills, Mr. Clinton told friends at a 1997 book party in Washington that he would support lifting sanctions on food and medicine (the Dodd-Warner legislation). "I just hope we can get around Jesse Helms' opposition," he said. This, as reported by Jack Nelson by the Los Angeles Times.
So, if it looks as though Mr. Clinton is going to extraordinary lengths to appease Mr. Castro now, to the point of sending armed INS agents on a commando raid into an American home; it is part of a long-standing pattern.
Will Republicans in Congress, then, follow the president's lead in embracing Mr. Castro and bowing to growing disaffection in the American public with the American Cuban community?
What is true is that the agriculture and business lobbies have made headway against the various unilateral U.S. sanctions regimes that stand in the way of American exports, and Cuba is one of the cases in point. A sanctions reform bill introduced by Sen. John Ashcroft, part of a larger package of foreign technical assistance legislation, has been voted out of committee, and is headed to the floor of the Senate later this year. Though it has been underway for some time, it is already being seen as part of a post-Elian shift in policy, a sign of weakening Republican resolve. Lest anyone thinks he has gone soft, however, Mr. Helms has continued to press Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to enforce the rule of law that the president recently has become so fond of and abide by Helms-Burton.
And first we will have the hearings on the INS raid lined up both in the House and Senate. Statements by Republican leaders on the Sunday morning shows were full of anger. Nor was this understandable reaction limited to Republicans. Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, who three weeks ago had been assured by Mr. Clinton himself that there would be no nighttime raid, told "This Week" on ABC that seizing Elian was "absolutely intolerable, unnecessary, outrageous." The wonder is not that lawmakers are outraged, but that most Americans are not.
E-mail: bering@twtmail.com.


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