WASHINGTON — Even in Florida, the politics surrounding Elian Gonzalez remains as treacherous as the waters between Miami and Cuba.
Though several leading politicians--most prominently Vice President Al Gore and the state's two U.S. senators--back legislation to preempt the boy's deportation, other political leaders in Florida have held back. In fact, while most Republicans appear sympathetic, only one of Florida's eight Democratic House members has endorsed the measure--and virtually all the rest are likely to oppose it if it reaches a vote.
That caution reflects the ambivalence many Floridians outside the Cuban American community feel about short-circuiting the usual immigration process in the Gonzalez case, local analysts say. In particular, the idea of rewriting the law for the boy has sharpened tensions between Cuban Americans and other ethnic communities, who argue that the Cubans' clout is producing favorable treatment.
"If we are to treat one individual the way that we are treating this child, then in all fairness to all the immigrant children who are here under unique circumstances, we should be offering them similar consideration," says Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), an African American who introduced a bill this week to block possible deportation of a 6-year-old Haitian girl.
Given these cross-currents, many political operatives in the state believe Gore, who attended a fund-raiser in Palm Beach on Thursday and continues campaigning in the state today, moved prematurely last week when he embraced the bill meant to block Elian's imminent return to Cuba with his father.
"Gore pulled the trigger on this thing pretty damn quick," said one senior Democratic operative in Florida. "He didn't really take the time to come in and talk to a lot of Florida people on it. I actually believe they would have told him to be careful. . . . This is not a unifying issue in Florida where everybody is on the same page." No recent polls in Florida have measured opinion on the emotional case, but a survey conducted last fall by the Florida Voter Poll, an independent polling group, found sentiment in the state mirrored the national trends, with about three-fifths of adults saying Elian should be reunited with his father.
Survey Shows Split Among Varied Groups
Even in South Florida, an overwhelming majority of non-Cubans have supported reuniting the child with his father. In a January survey conducted for a Miami television station, 70% of non-Latino whites in the Miami area and nearly 80% of African Americans said Gonzalez should be returned to his father in Cuba. By contrast, nearly 90% of Miami-Dade County Cubans said the boy should not be returned.
"In a sense, the Cuban community is becoming more isolated from the other communities," says Jaimie Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute of Cuba and Cuban American studies.
Bubbling just beneath the controversy are much deeper cultural strains. As in other states with large immigrant populations, the growing prominence of Cuban Americans has unsettled some other residents. And the images of Cuban American protesters threatening to block the boy's removal from his Miami relatives tap into the fears that the state may be balkanizing, local observers say.
Especially pointed in this case may be tensions between the Cuban American community and African Americans and Haitians. "In South Florida, the African American community has always felt the Cuban Americans have gotten much too much attention and gotten too much of their way when it came to the distribution of political power and other issues," says Jim Kane, who runs the Florida Voter Poll.
African Americans actually constitute a larger share of the typical statewide vote in Florida (about 12%) than Cuban Americans (who usually make up about 7%), says Kane. But the Cubans' clout is magnified by their importance as political donors.
The resistance from core Democratic groups, such as African Americans, may help explain why few Florida Democratic officials have endorsed the legislation to remove the Immigration and Naturalization Service's jurisdiction over Elian's case--a move that would at least temporarily prevent the boy's father from returning him to Cuba. Though Gore and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.)--mentioned as a possible running mate for the presumed Democratic presidential nominee--have backed the measure, the only House Democrat to do so has been Rep. Peter Deutsch, who has a measurable Cuban American presence in his South Florida district.
But Hastings says that, based on conversations with his colleagues, he believes virtually all of the other Florida House Democrats would vote against the bill. State Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, the presumptive Democratic nominee in this fall's U.S. Senate race, effectively backed the measure in a letter to U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno last month, but he's remained virtually invisible in the dispute.