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Elian Gonzalez is home. After a seven-month legal battle, the shipwrecked 6-year-old boy has returned to Cuba with his father. His tale held the world captive — and made plain the degree to which U.S. politics is held captive by a vocal minority of Cuban Americans in Miami. Now that the boy has been reunited with his father, there is an opportunity for the United States to begin a new relationship with Cuba. There are few signs that Washington is ready to take up that challenge.

The Elian story is equal parts fable and farce: the child discovered clinging to a piece of driftwood, after losing his mother in a flight to freedom; tales of being escorted by dolphins, protected by the Virgin Mary. There is the family that took him and refused to return him to his father. Their belief, and that of their supporters, that some principles are above the law erased the differences between the society they abhorred (Cuba) and the one they had adopted (the U.S). And then there is Cuban President Fidel Castro making political capital out of a situation he created: Elian’s mother was fleeing his communist dictatorship in the first place.

The U.S. Supreme Court end this absurd situation by refusing to intervene. In effect, it ruled that the law had been followed and the rights of the father prevailed over those of distant relatives.

Images will linger — especially that of federal agents pointing their weapons at a terrified child. No doubt, there will be questions in the upcoming presidential campaign about “courage.” Did Vice President Al Gore pander to the Cuban-American community? Did the administration of President Bill Clinton put relations with Cuba over the fate of an innocent child? Most important, will the next U.S. president have the wisdom and courage to see that the current relationship with Cuba is a dead end and that 40 years of hostility have had no demonstrable effect? Trade legislation in the Congress suggests there is a chance to move the relationship forward. Seizing the opportunity is another matter.

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