- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000

Ever since his extraordinary rescue, Elian Gonzalez' fate has been at the center of a bitter and often irrational controversy. However, the March 21 ruling by a Miami federal court judge has opened the door for the Clinton administration to act decisively, if belatedly, in the child's best interests, by swiftly reuniting him with his Havana family.
Previously, the Justice Department had found "no credible information indicating that Elian would be at risk of torture or persecution," if returned to Cuba. On the contrary, unsupervised discussions with U.S. officials revealed Juan Gonzales to be a doting father who provided ample evidence to substantiate the close relationship that he testified sharing with his son. There is near unanimity among psychologists that Elian and his immediate family have been deeply scarred by his mother's premature death and require each other's support to bring the unduly delayed process of healing to an end. Mr. Gonzalez himself has rightfully reiterated this point in his pleas that, while Elian has become a political banner for Miami exiles and a "communist legend" in Cuba, "to me he is my six-year-old son, and I want, and need, him back."
The Miami relatives' position was given a full and fair hearing and a legal process that has taken its course through this nation's judicial system has upheld the administration's actions. Now, the time has come for the administration to act on President Clinton's professed insistence right after the tragedy that Elian's welfare must be kept separate from all political considerations.
However, those who loathe the thought of returning Elian to Cuba may not be mistaken in their belief that it is a grave decision to repatriate the boy to an economically marginalized country ruled by an authoritarian regime. Therefore, instead of prolonging a history of unremitting hostilities, why not use Elian's reunion with his father as an opportunity to inaugurate a new U.S. strategy designed to enhance the welfare of all Cuban families? Such an approach would begin with an earnest re-evaluation of Washington's sterile, 40-year-old embargo policy, which today has few friends anywhere. Even an increasing number of American conservatives concede that the embargo strategy was badly flawed in its concept and dysfunctional in its execution. While victimizing the average Cuban, it singles out the Castro regime as the villain, even though Havana's admittedly flawed human rights record is demonstrably superior to that of many other nations like China, North Korea, Iran, and Libya with whom Washington constructively engages or is warmly courting.
Although Mr. Castro may live longer than many of his opponents would hope, some observers have seen evidence of his physical decline, pointing to an inevitable passing of an authoritarian reign. During the interregnum and in the spirit of Elian Washington would do well to use the compassion prompted by the child's sad fate as an opportunity to bombard the island with a skein of pluralistic initiatives aimed at promoting a transition to an open society. Such an approach could include raising the cap on financial remittances sent by Cuban-Americans to their island relatives and easing the overly strict financial and property ownership standards imposed on Cuban nationals applying for temporary visas to visit the United States.
This process could be further helped along by the interplay between natural democratic stirrings within Cuba's civil society and its leader's curtailed fiat, to orchestrate a gradual political and economic opening. Rather than risk the uncertainties of a potential Gotterdammerung over succession following Mr. Castro's sudden death, a phase-in now of policies that will facilitate the sprouting of democratic change should be encouraged by a series of artful incentives.
The failure to return Elian to his father promptly, as mandated by the 1994-95 bilateral migration agreements, has caused a serious breach in U.S.-Cuba relations and could endanger the lives of additional would-be refugees who may be encouraged by such inconsistencies in enforcement to hazard the Florida Straits crossing. As if these factors were not enough, the furor over the case has invited an escalation of Mr. Castro's sharp crackdown on the island's growing and increasingly vocal group of political dissidents.
Although the Miami exile community sees un milagro in his survival, the real miracle would be if Elian's case could humanize Cuba for Americans and serve as a positive catalyst to persuade Washington to introduce policies that would lay the human basis for the country's transition to democracy in a setting of reconciliation and tranquillity.
Should the administration ignore this unique opportunity and passively allow the appeals process to drag on, Elian and the Cuban people will most likely have to suffer the sad consequences.

Gillett Pionkowski is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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