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Saga shows Cuban-American lobby's right-wing clout

The saga of Elian Gonzalez, the small boy caught in the middle of a row between Washington and Havana, may seem to demonstrate yet again the strength of America's right-wing Cuban-American lobby. "They have shown enough clout to get the US government to do very difficult things," says Max Castro of the University of Miami.

But many experts in the US also see the battle as both evidence of a strategic miscalculation, and of weaknesses. "They have positioned themselves very badly in terms of public opinion," adds Castro. "This is going to be a very costly exercise in the long term," says Lisandro Perez, Director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University (FIU).

Above all, by focussing on an issue which most Americans opposed - keeping the boy in the US, rather than sending him home to his father - they have frittered away valuable political capital. "They have used so much muscle on this that they are going to lose a lot of sympathy nationally and in South Florida," said Dario Moreno of FIU. "It has created a wedge between Cuban-American and American public opinion."

There are about 800,000 Cuban-Americans in Florida, and a number of groups, which include every kind of view on Castro's Cuba. The most prominent, however, are the right wing organisations which campaign for an end to his dictatorship, some through violence, some through lobbying. The proportion of Cuban-Americans who feel angry and committed enough to act on an issue like Elian is, however, quite small, says Julia Sweig, Director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Cuba Programme. "This is a very small and committed group of people. It's probably quite shallow," she says. "Opinion on the subject runs very deep in the community, of course, but not everyone is a committed activist."

The main anti-Castro organisation is the Cuban-American National Foundation, a highly effective machine created by Jorge Mas Canosa, a local businessman. He lobbied hard and effectively to maintain the embargo against Cuba and to toughen it. But Mas Canosa died in 1997, and most experts agree that under his son, Jorge Mas Jr, the organisation has got weaker.

"There's a vacuum, and a fragmentation," says Mr Castro. "You have different leaders playing different roles. (Republican Congressman Lincoln) Diaz-Ballart and Jorge Mas are the movement's official spokesman and players in Washington. Ramon Saul Sanchez is the leader of the street protests." Sanchez, leader of the Democracy Movement, is a relatively minor player but has had success with grass roots issues, and has been prominent every day in the Elian saga, drilling his supporters outside the boy's house. "Sanchez sees his area of opportunity on the street," says Mr Perez. "He has taken advantage."

The case of Elian Gonzalez was first taken up by the CANF, which used the boy's image on posters to campaign against President Fidel Castro's planned appearance at last year's WTO summit in Seattle. Mr Moreno believes that they did not intend for it to become an all-encompassing struggle, but had to ride the wave of public opinion.

"People here have been surprised by how this became an issue. Some have painted themselves into a corner," he says.

"It's the emotional sectors that drown out everything else," says Mr Perez. "Some of the leadership who might have second thoughts either get carried along, or know that they must ride it, get in front of it even. The emotional sector forces compliance."

In the course of the issue, it has shifted from being America versus Cuba to Little Havana versus the US, something which Mas Canosa tried to avoid: he wanted Cuban-Americans to be seen as patriots and loyal Americans, not sectionalists. But leaders like Sanchez and other street politicians "view this as a cause of justice," says Mr Moreno.

"They have always been dubious of the support of the US government," he says, whereas for Jorge Mas Canosa it was essential to use the government rather than oppose it.

Some see reason for optimism in the Elian case. One analyst says that Jorge Mas Jr would like to shift the organisation towards the centre, away from an extreme position that is always negative. "He understands that people-to-people exchanges and more opening might accomplish his goals. But he's constrained," says one. The failure of the Elian case may help weaken the hold of the hardliners, and make it easier for a future administration to take on the anti-Castro lobby, some believe. They see a decline in commitment to La Causa amongst the younger generation, a fading of Cold War tensions.

But Miguel Centeno of Princeton University, a member of a moderate Cuban American group, is pessimistic. "They have shored up their percentage. They have given a symbol to Miami, to Tallahassee (the state capital) and to Washington that they need to be taken seriously," he says. Drawing a comparison with Northern Ireland, he says: "I don't see a Trimble. I see a lot of Paisleys," and adds. "It's a perpetual motion machine of political hatred."