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Thursday, 6 January, 2000, 21:04 GMT
Analysis: US-Cuba relations in the spotlight

demo Castro turned the custody battle into a nationalist rallying cry


By Tom Gibb in Havana

The custody dispute over six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, which has reheated passions from 40 years of hostility across the straights of Florida, is unlikely to jeopardise the slow improvement of US-Cuban relations.

Fidel Castro can claim to have won a victory over his old enemy, if the US immigration service carries out its decision to return the boy to his father on the island. But he has been careful throughout not to escalate the dispute into a wider conflict with Washington.

Indeed Fidel Castro's aim appears to have been to force Washington to stand up to Cuban exiles in Miami and the US Congress, rather than provoke a real crisis.

The veteran Cuban leader, who is a past master at managing disputes with his "imperialist" enemy, picked a battle he was always likely to win.

Lawyers and experts said from the start that US and international law always favours the rights of a parent.


Castro: Past master at managing disputes with the US
Elian was shipwrecked in November off the Florida coast after his mother and stepfather drowned trying to reach the US as illegal immigrants.

He was then handed over to a great uncle in Miami, who started a highly political campaign to keep him there. Cuban exile leaders turned him into a symbol of Cubans fleeing Communist oppression.

But Elian's grandparents and father on the island demanded him back. Privately, US officials said from the start that, as long as the father could prove his relationship, then the boy should be sent home.

Rallying cry

Fidel Castro has turned the case into a nationalist rallying cry.

Millions in Cuba took to the streets in government organised rallies and marches to denounce the imperialist kidnappers of Elian in ever more florid language.

The issue has helped him once again cement his power on the island.

But he has also used it to campaign for changes in US policy.


Elian's family in Miami intends to appeal against the decision to return him
He wants the US "wet foot - dry foot" immigration policy changed to make it harder for Cubans to leave illegally for the United States.

At present any Cuban who reaches dry land is allowed to stay. Only those intercepted at sea are sent back.

Fidel Castro blames this for fuelling a growing smuggling trade in illegal Cuban immigrants.

US embargo

Fidel Castro is also campaigning for the US economic embargo against Cuba to be unconditionally lifted.

That still appears a long way off, not least because the Cuban leader has repeatedly made it clear he is not prepared to allow any internal openings towards democracy on the island to help achieve this.

Throughout the dispute, however, contacts have continued to increase.

Later this month large delegations of US agricultural and pharmaceutical representatives are expected to visit the island, taking advantage of more relaxed rules for selling food and medicines to Cuba.

The official Cuban response to the US announcement to send Elian home has been muted.

A battle may have been won, is the gist, but the war will go on. But in terms of influencing US public opinion, Castro has succeeded in putting the issue of US-Cuba relations to the fore.

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See also:
06 Jan 00 |  Americas
Cuba: Fight for boy continues
06 Jan 00 |  Americas
Battle rages over Cuban boy
05 Jan 00 |  Americas
Cuba boy decision: Despair and delight
05 Jan 00 |  Americas
Moves to solve shipwreck custody battle
13 Dec 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Shipwrecked Cuban boy stirs mixed emotions
07 Dec 99 |  Americas
In pictures: Shipwreck boy sparks protests
06 Jan 00 |  Talking Point
Should the Cuban boy go back?

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