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It's been likened to a community conducting its own foreign policy, or to the defiance of southern governors during the desegregation wars of the 1950s and 60s. Rarely have so many Americans been more visibly enraged with their national government than in these days of arms-linking and fist-shaking in Miami over the fate of Elian Gonzales.

Eye in the Sky

Clearly, events now unfolding in south Florida have at least as much to do with four bitter decades of Cuban-U.S. history as with where a six-year-old immigrant is to spend the rest of his childhood.

Underlying this intensely human drama is a big political question for the United States: Whether democracy and respect for human rights can best be promoted in Cuba by a steel fist or a gloved hand.

With a trade embargo and other sanctions in place, Washington and Havana officially are still enemies. But President Clinton and Cuban leader Fidel Castro now find themselves allies on the particular question of whether little Elian should be reunited with his father and returned to Cuba.

Whatever happens to the child, it is clear that until now at least, the two countries, like feuding parents, have been edging cautiously toward a reconciliation-if not a honeymoon.


On Thanksgiving Day 1999, two Florida fishermen found Elian Gonzalez clinging to life in the waters off Fort Lauderdale. The child's mother drowned in her attempt to reach the United States with the boy-who was born after she and his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, had separated.

Elian was immediately taken under wing by members of his extended family, who are among the roughly 800,000 Cuban exiles now living in Miami-Dade County. The case has turned into a high-profile standoff, culminating in the arrival on April 6 of the elder Gonzalez in the United States to press his claim to custody of Elian and to take the boy back with him to Cuba.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has urged the relatives to hand Elian over peaceably, pending the outcome of their court challenge of an Immigration and Naturalization Service decision that the boy should be returned.

The idea of surrendering Elian has enflamed the Cuban exile community, whose principal political goal for the past 40 years has been the overthrow of Fidel Castro-an arch-enemy many refer to as "El Loco."

Once he took over their homeland by force in 1959, Castro moved quickly and brutally to suppress all opposition, imprisoning or executing political foes. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island as the revolution became increasingly radical.


Many settled in Miami-Dade County, whose 2.1 million residents are overwhelmingly Latin American. Here, Spanish is the preferred language, and the flag of Cuba is seen more often than the Stars and Stripes. In the county seat, many residents of "Little Havana" jokingly refer to themselves as a separate country-more Cuban than American: "the Independent Republic of Miami."

Their depth of support for Elian's U.S. custodians came into clear relief on March 29 when 20 elected county officials, including the mayor of Miami, said they would not allow the local police to assist federal authorities in handing over Elian to his father for return to Cuba. They argued that such a move would be cruel, since Cuba is ruled by a cruel and oppressive regime.

The exile community largely agrees with the U.S. government's goals for change in Cuba: transformation to a stable, democratic form of government and respect for human rights. But they part ways on tactics.

Many Cuban-Americans favor a tough approach, hoping for a sudden collapse of the Castro regime similar to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or a popular uprising. By contrast, the Clinton administration emphasizes a gradual, peaceful transition through maintenance of economic pressure, humanitarian assistance, and efforts along with other countries in the region to further the development of democratic and free-market institutions.

The administration's carrot-and-stick approach most recently included an expansion last year of "people-to-people" contacts, such as student, athletic and journalistic exchanges; increasing direct airplane links; authorizing food sales to independent businesses and organizations, and establishing direct mail service in line with Pope John Paul II's recent call to "open up" Cuba.

The "stick" part consists of continuing economic and trade embargoes first imposed in 1960s; and the Helms-Burton ("Libertad") Act of 1996, which threatens penalties on foreign companies doing business in Cuba and allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign investors who use American-owned property seized by the Cuban government.


Until the early 1990s, U.S. economic sanctions made little difference to the Castro regime, whose economy and aggressive military establishment were propped up by the Soviet union. Soviet arms and rubles even allowed Cuba to send combat troops to support communist movements in Africa and Central America. It also gave Moscow a strategic toe-hold just 90 miles off the coast of Florida-a presence that in 1962 nearly led to a nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union plunged the island into an economic crisis. Hard times have led to a halting succession of market-oriented reforms, such as allowing foreign investments, promoting tourism, legalizing the dollar (in 1993), and permitting a limited amount of entrepreneurship independent of the state-run economy. Nevertheless, living conditions, never plush for most Cubans, today remain considerably worse than in 1989.

Recent reforms, including the lifting of a few restrictions on religious freedoms, have been praised by the Clinton administration, which has pledged that the United States would respond reciprocally to major steps toward democratization and respect for human rights.

A severe setback in U.S.-Cuban relations came with the 1996 Cuban military downing of a U.S. civilian plane in international airspace, killing three Cuban-Americans and injuring one Cuban resident of the United States.

But assuming no further major incidents, some analysts believe that rapprochement between the two countries is inevitable in the foreseeable future-if not under Fidel Castro or Bill Clinton, then under successors.

A settlement of the Gonzalez case acceptable to Cuba could even further that goal. In any case, if the day of reconciliation ever does come, the story of Elian Gonzalez may be recalled as little more than a tragic footnote to history.

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

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More Information
• Slightly larger than Virginia, with a population of 11 million, Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean.
• Current U.S. law does not permit tourist visits to Cuba-which now relies more on tourism than sugar to attract foreign exchange. However, increasing numbers of Americans-especially boaters-are finding ways to skirt restrictions.
• The State Department rates Cuba as a repressive regime that continues to intimidate, detain, and arrest dissidents and human rights activists. Hundreds of political prisoners remain in Cuban jails.
• The Clinton administration's approach has been to recognize small improvements, such as loosening restrictions on religious freedoms, with small rewards, such as permitting more "people-to-people" exchanges.

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  • January 1959: Revolutionary forces seize control of Havana. Trials and executions of former Batista regime officials begin.
  • 1960: Castro begins confiscating U.S. and foreign-owned property. U.S. imposes an economic embargo.
  • January, 1961: President Eisenhower breaks diplomatic relations.
  • April, 1961: U.S.-supported Cuban exiles invade at the Bay of Pigs.
  • October 1962: The United States and the Soviet Union nearly go to war in the Cuban missile crisis.
  • 1965-1971: 250,000 Cubans come to the United States in "Freedom Flights" program.
  • 1973: Cuba sends 500 tank drivers to aid Syria during the Yom Kippur War and combat troops to Angola to support the Marxist regime there.
  • 1977: With troops already in the Congo, Mozambique and Guinea, Cuba sends trainers (and later 20,000 troops) into Ethiopia.
  • July 1979: Cuba supports Sandinista overthrow of Nicaraguan government. A month later, Soviet combat forces are found in Cuba.
  • April 1980: From the port of Mariel, 125,000 refugees begin their exodus to the United States.
  • September-December, 1991: Soviets announce plans to withdraw troops from Cuba, along with $6 billion worth of economic subsidies.
  • July 1992: Cuba changes constitution to attract foreign investment-without compromising Castro's hold on power.
  • 1995: The U.S. and Cuba agree on commitment to promote safe, legal and orderly migration. President Clinton announces measures to expand people-to-people contacts, and to loosen restrictions on relief operations by private organizations.
  • February, 1996: Cuban MIGs shoot down two civilian aircraft belonging to the Miami-based group Brothers to the Rescue.
  • March, 1996: Clinton signs the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, enacting penalties on foreign companies doing business in Cuba. Later, citing progress made in promoting democratic change, he suspends Title III, the right of U.S. citizens to sue foreign investors using American-owned property seized by Cuba.
  • 1998: After a visit by Pope John Paul II, the government officially recognizes Christmas as a holiday for the first time since 1969.
  • 1999: Clinton announces more "people-to-people" contacts, more direct air links, and other improvements in relations.