Three minutes that shook America

The high drama of yesterday's pre-dawn raid on the Miami house of Lazaro Gonzalez lasted a bare three minutes: just as long as it took to break down the door, snatch six-year-old Elian from the arms of his fisherman-rescuer and rush him out to the waiting cars. But the political and diplomatic reverberations of what happened are likely to be felt for decades, and many lives have been changed, probably for ever.

The immediate controversy, and the one that may be shortest-lived, is the degree of force used to recover the child. Earlier government pledges not to raid the house by night or use force of arms were broken.

The US attorney-general, Janet Reno, said that no guns were pointed at the child and no fingers were on triggers - a close examination of the pictures shows this to be true - and that adequate precautions had to be taken because of reports that there were guns in the neighbourhood.

Of all the people involved in the case, Ms Reno had the most responsibility and the most to lose, professionally and personally. It was she who conducted negotiations with the Miami relatives at crucial junctures and it was up to her to decide whether and when to authorise the use of force. After the disastrous storming of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco seven years ago, her reputation as someone able to take decisions under extreme pressure was on the line.

She insisted throughout that the law and morality demanded the reunion of Elian with his father. In retrospect, the success of yesterday's operation and the lengths to which she went to negotiate a settlement will probably vindicate her judgement. On the personal front, however, she has lost a great deal. A native of Miami, where she was elected state attorney four times, Ms Reno had hoped for a peaceful retirement in her family house there. The wrath of the city's 800,000 Cuban émigrés may make that impossible.

Several thousand Cubans poured on to the streets of their Little Havana quarter of Miami yesterday after news of the raid spread, in mostly peaceful protests. The Elian saga, however, has polarised Miami, and could well have dissipated their national influence. The view of the majority of émigré Cubans, that the child's right to live in American freedom superseded the parental rights of his father, was not shared in the rest of the United States. And the anger with which they defended their view only added to the impression of an immigrant group that placed itself above US law.

Some Miami Cuban leaders fear that Congress, having seen Little Havana flout US law, could now move to lift the trade embargo on Cuba despite their opposition. Certainly, the enforced return of Elian to his father will improve the climate of US-Cuban relations; but they could sour again if the legal processes drag on too long.

The fight over Elian Gonzalez, and the manner in which he was removed from his Miami relatives, not only split mainstream opinion away from that of the Cuban émigrés, it divided families and destroyed friendships. The prospect that the father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, and Elian's uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, can ever be reconciled is remote; Juan Miguel believes Lazaro "kidnapped" his child and then poisoned his mind with a constant stream of new toys and anti-Cuba propaganda.

The Republican presidential nominee, George W Bush, whose brother Jeb is Florida Governor, took the side of the anti-Castro émigrés from the start. In what may have been a political misjudgement, the Democratic nominee, Vice-President Al Gore, broke with President Clinton and called at one point for Elian to be given permanent residence in the US. He then restricted himself to calling for the law to take its course. In taking a view similar to that of George W Bush, he prevented the issue becoming an issue in the presidential race - except in his own party. Many Democratic Congressmen and most American blacks believed that Elian belonged with his father and accused Mr Gore of "pandering" to Florida's Cuban voters.

The difficulty for Mr Gore is that his stand may have cost him votes outside southern Florida and he may not be able to recoup sufficient votes from the strongly Republican émigré Cubans to compensate. In a close presidential race, Florida's electoral college votes could swing the election. The forcible snatching of the child makes it even less likely that Mr Gore will win Florida, and could even cost him the presidency.

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