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Thursday, 29 June, 2000, 19:25 GMT 20:25 UK
Politicians exploit the Elian factor
Cuban Americans protest over the Elian Gonzalez case
The influence of Cuban-Americans may be on the wane
By US affairs analyst Gordon Corera

The repercussions of the Elian Gonzalez saga are likely to reverberate for many months in American politics and foreign policy.

In an election year, almost every big story gets politicised as candidates jockey for position.

Vice-President Al Gore's involvement in the Elian Gonzalez story proved a particularly costly move.

When Mr Gore broke with President Clinton by supporting moves to give the six-year-old Cuban boy permanent residency in the US, he looked opportunistic and willing to pander to any constituency to try and win support - a criticism from which he has yet to fully recover.

US Vice President Al Gore
Al Gore badly misjudged popular opinion

The reason Mr Gore has taken such a risk is simple - he thought he had a chance of winning Florida where the Cuban-American community has been a key constituency.

Florida has only twice voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate in the last 30 years. It is currently governed by Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican candidate George W. Bush.

Powerful force

Since they arrived after the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cuban-Americans have become a powerful force in Florida politics.

Bill Clinton narrowly lost the state in 1992, but in 1996 he made a concerted effort to win over the Cuban-American community, taking a tough line against Fidel Castro, and won the state.

But Al Gore's move did him little good. The latest polls show that Mr Bush still leads Mr Gore in Florida by about eight points, a lead that has remained pretty constant since before Mr Gore's Elian comments.

The Cubans have had an especially influential voice, thanks to their money, tradition and geographical concentration in Florida.

But other Hispanics have been resentful of both the power and influence of the Cuban lobby, and the perceived extremism of their position over Elian.

Al Gore's move also exposed the diminishing power of the Cuban-American lobby, as even their traditional allies, the Republicans, began to distance themselves.

Misjudgement

Republicans initially reacted with outrage to the seizure of Elian from his Miami relatives, using highly charged terms like "storm troopers" to describe the federal agents involved in getting hold of the boy.

Elian Gonzalez seized by US agents
Most Americans supported the seizure of Elian

Republican leaders talked about holding hearings on Capitol Hill, but soon realised they were out of step with popular opinion which was generally supportive of the return of the boy to Cuba.

On 27 June, the House of Representatives voted, in defiance of the Cuban-American lobby, to relax the embargo which has been in place on Cuba since 1960 and allow direct sales of food and medicine to the island.

The move has been led by a coalition of business and agricultural leaders, frustrated at their lack of access to the Cuban market as they see Europe making inroads.

The Cuban-American community's weakness and failure to keep Elian in the country has shown to everyone that their influence may be waning.

As a result, it may be hard to say who has come out worst from the whole story.

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See also:

28 Jun 00 | Americas
Joy and anger over Elian
27 Apr 00 | Americas
What's life really like in Cuba?
18 Apr 00 | Americas
Elian's relatives at war
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