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Elian and his family leave imprinted in the American mind the first images of what real, ordinary, flesh-and-blood Cubans are like.

Related Gully Stories

The Complete Elian
The Gully's complete coverage.

The Cuba Files
All about Cuba, pre- and post- Castro.

elian and grandparents
Elian with great-grandmother, grandfather in Havana.

Life After Elian

by Toby Eglund

JUNE 29, 2000. After seven months of twilight-zone captivity in the United States, Elian Gonzalez has finally returned to his homeland. Cuba-U.S. relations will never be the same again. For the first time in 40 years, both governments have seen eye to eye on a very public and explosive issue. There is now a B.E., and an A.E.

In his wake, 6-year old Elian leaves a weakened hard-line Cuban exile lobby, a deeply divided Miami, and a Cuban-American community now perceived by most Americans as ungrateful, unkind to their own people, and perhaps even un-American in their disregard for democracy and the rule of law.

Elian also leaves imprinted in the American mind the first images of what real, ordinary, flesh-and-blood Cubans who live in Cuba look, sound, and feel like. Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, stepmother Nersy Carmenate, baby half-brother Hianny, grandmothers, and cute Cuban schoolmates—all of them as bright and wholesome as apple pie, and photogenic to boot—now populate our mental Cuban landscape, which until recently only contained an oversized Fidel Castro and some glum, shadowy, Cold War-style stick figures.

In other words, Elian has humanized Cuba.

B.E., most Americans either didn't know, or didn't care, about the U.S. embargo on Cuba. That may be changing already.

When Congress formally lifts the ban on selling food to Cuba in the next few weeks, as already agreed, Americans will be able to put a human, as opposed to ideological, face on Cuba's hunger and hope, and chances are that it will be a Cuban Gonzalez face.

And when lifting the ban does not put a single bag of Mississippi Delta rice on a Cuban table, Americans will also be able to put a human, or rather, inhuman face on the culprits: the very same hard-line Cuban-American politicos and their Republican right-wing allies who gave us the Elian fiasco, and are now crowing that they have gutted the bill of any real economic significance.

Cracks in the Blockade
However symbolic, the decision to allow American farmers to sell their goods directly to Cuba for the first time since 1962 has deep political significance. It is the first major crack in the economic blockade of the island begun by President Kennedy in 1962.

B.E., the hard-line Cuban-American leadership practically wrote U.S. policy on Cuba for decades, with successive Presidents just signing on the dotted line. A.E., as the food bill shows, they have been put on the defensive. Now, the exile lobbyists can just obstruct, not prevent, and let alone initiate, as in the glory days when they, and the Congressional objects of their largesse, successfully passed the Torricelli Act and the Helms-Burton law tightening the embargo.

The relaxation of the embargo on Cuba by Congress just hours before Elian returned to Havana is a major political defeat for the exile leadership. The embargo is crumbling: the writing is on the wall, but will they see it? Not likely, judging from their recent obstructionist, tooth-and-nail wrangling in Congress over the food bill. It was like Elian deja vu all over again.

The exile leadership apparently has learned nothing from the Elian debacle. As any 6-year-old could tell them by now, if they hold on to kid Embargo as desperately as they did to kid Elian, they will be digging their own political, and economic, grave on both sides of the straits of Florida. Worse, they may drag down with them, once more, their entire hardworking, sadly insular, community.

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