Kausfiles Special

Elián: An Overlooked Angle?

Why is President Clinton being so sensitive to the concerns of Cuba in the Elián González case? Sure, the law may be on the side of returning the boy to his father. But something else may be at work, something the press hasn’t spent much attention on.

Last December, you may remember, some Cuban prisoners took hostages in a jail in St. Martin Parish, La. The prisoners had committed crimes in the United States since coming over in the Mariel boat lift and were being held indefinitely. They demanded to be released or sent to another country.

The potentially violent six-day standoff was ended only when the Castro government agreed to take all but one of the prisoners back. Six of them were flown to Havana. Cuba had previously resisted the prisoners’ return, and there was no way the United States could have made Cuba accept them. The Cuban government eventually agreed, it said, in order to avert a “bloody outcome.”

One way to put this is to say they helped us out of a big jam, and we owe them one, and the State Department keeps track of such things. An anti-Castro Cuban might put it another way, charging that Castro cynically used the prisoners as bargaining chips with which to cut an implicit–or maybe explicit–deal in the Elián custody dispute (which was already underway when the prisoners took the hostages). Either way, the prison uprising gave Castro considerable leverage.

Both governments have denied there is a connection between the two incidents. But then they would, wouldn’t they?

P.S.: Clinton might be expected to have been especially concerned about the Louisiana prison situation, since he had been politically burned by unrest among incarcerated Marielitos before. Rioting by Cuban refugees housed at Fort Chaffee, Ark., helped cost him re-election in 1980 after his first term as governor of that state–the last time, in fact, that Clinton lost an election.