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Elian’s Case Seen Helping Relatios

January 14, 2000

HAVANA, Cuba (AP) _ The custody flap over 6-year-old Elian Gonzales could ultimately strengthen U.S.-Cuba relations if American officials stand firm and do not succumb to political pressure, a former American diplomat to Havana said Thursday.

``The federal government is doing the right thing by standing by the INS decision,″ said Wayne Smith, referring to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

``I am not so sure that would have been the case several years ago,″ said Smith, who was chief of the U.S. Interests Section for three years under Presidents Reagan and Carter.

Attorney General Janet Reno earlier Thursday urged those involved in the dispute over the Cuban boy to resolve the situation quickly so the child ``can get on with his life.″

Reno has backed the INS determination that the boy be returned to his father in Cuba, and has said that Florida state courts have no say in the federal matter.

``I think that over the long term this case will actually help relations between Washington and Havana,″ said Smith, because American officials have not been swayed by Cuban exiles in Miami who want the child to remain in the United States.

The battle over Elian, Smith said, is not between two governments but between two ideological camps on differing sides of the Florida Straits: in Miami and Havana.

Elian was found clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day. His mother and 10 others died in an attempt to emigrate to the United States.

The boy’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, has demanded that the child be returned to him in Cuba. But Elian’s Miami relatives say they can give him a better life off the communist island and are fighting to keep him in the United States.

The Cuban American National Foundation, a powerful Miami-based exile group, in 1996 won a libel suit against Smith after he accused the organization of using taxpayer money for political campaigns. The verdict was reversed on appeal last year.

Smith, in Havana with a Johns Hopkins University study group, said Cuban exiles may be hurt most by the battle as more Americans side with the U.S. government’s decision to send the boy home.

``We could see a further loss of the exiles’ political power,″ he said. ``The exiles already are in this alone as polls in the United States indicate a great majority of Americans think he should be back with his father.″

Also Thursday, a delegation of American agricultural firms wrapped up a four-day visit to Cuba, calling for a lifting of U.S. restrictions on food and medicine sales here.

Among delegation members was former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture John Block, who served under Reagan and is now president of the Food Distributors International, an association of food wholesalers interested in working with small private family cooperatives in Cuba.

``In years past as secretary of agriculture, I negotiated trade agreements with the Soviet Union when it was with the Evil Empire,″ Block told reporters during a tour of farms. ``Now we cannot even trade with a country 90 miles from our shores.″

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