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Western Press Review: Elian's Seizure, Iran's Crackdown

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 25 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Much Western commentary today focuses on the fate of the 6-year-old Cuban boy -- Elian Gonzalez -- who was seized over the weekend by authorities in the U.S. city of Miami after five months of legal entanglements. Commentators provide differing assessments of the event and explore its implications for Cuban-American relations. There is also some analysis today of Iran's recent crackdown on the country's pro-reform press.

FINANCIAL TIMES: The seizure of the boy was lawful

In an editorial, Britain's Financial Times describes Elian's seizure Saturday (April 22) by federal marshals and reunion with his father in Washington as "a symbol of U.S. justice." It says the case has "provoked an extraordinary outpouring of support, condemnation, and political opportunism."

The paper writes further: "The graphic footage of gun-toting law enforcement officers grabbing the panic-stricken boy has prompted the inevitable criticism that such a harsh action was the stuff of Communist Cuba and hardly appropriate in the U.S. But," it adds, "the case tells more of the differences between the two countries, and of the strength of the U.S. legal system."

The paper goes on: "The seizure of the boy was lawful and, indeed, was the exercise of law on behalf of a foreign national seeking custody of his son. Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian's father, is no friend of the U.S. and apparently sympathetic to a regime openly hostile to Washington. "It is difficult," the editorial concludes, "to imagine the Cuban government allowing the law to take its course in such a complex and emotional case. It is also difficult to imagine the Cuban government allowing the transparency that comes with media freedom."

SUEDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Janet Reno should have acted earlier

A German commentary finds that the U.S. should have acted sooner. Writing in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Klaus Brill says: "It was not a moment too soon when [U.S.] Attorney General Janet Reno chose to use the force of an armed police raid to remove Elian from the stressful environment of his great-uncle's home in Miami and deliver him into the care of his father. In fact," he adds, "she should have acted earlier to prevent the extremists of the exiled Cuban community and the Castro regime blowing up the issue into a huge propaganda war, which, as things stand at the moment, looks like being decided in favor of Fidel Castro."

Brill continues: "No true democrat could possibly be pleased about that. Castro is a tyrant who throws his opponents into jail. His people have suffered for decades under his incompetent and stubborn leadership. Perhaps he would long ago have been dethroned had eight U.S. presidents since 1959 and the majority of Congress not persevered so relentlessly with their boycott of their small neighboring state."

He continues: "That Castro reacted to the police raid in Miami by calling a day-long cease-fire in the cold war with the U.S. is of little significance. There are few signs that this reconciliation will last." Yet, he concludes, "the affair may yet have a positive outcome. Congressmen in Washington and Miami-based Cubans may come to the conclusion that, after 41 years of Cuban Communism, mindless confrontation is not the most effective means of tackling the Castro regime."

BOSTON GLOBE: The raid was necessary

The U.S. daily Boston Globe praises President Bill Clinton's administration for what it calls its "wisdom" in returning Elian to his father. The paper says this was "confirmed over the weekend by the decision of his Miami relatives and their Republican [Party] allies to further politicize what ought to be a straightforward child-custody case. Elian is finally getting time to reconnect with his father in a quiet, neutral setting where he is no longer a metaphor for the war between the Cubans."

The editorial continues: "The raid was necessary because the Gonzalez relatives in Miami, refusing to return the boy, made him into a symbol of resistance to Fidel Castro. Elian printed his name on an application for asylum and was put in front of a video camera to say that he did not want to go back to Cuba. The relatives treated the boy like a political prop." So did Castro, the paper adds, calling the Cuban leader "a master manipulator of public opinion."

The editorial sums up: "Juan Miguel Gonzalez apparently is a Castro supporter, but that should not disqualify him from being reunited with his child. [Like] any other 6-year-old in the care of a loving parent, Elian should go wherever that parent wants."

NEW YORK TIMES: The way to hasten the end to the regime in Cuba is not with embargoes and kidnappings

Two comments in today's New York Times argue that the seizure of Elian -- against the will of Miami's large Cuban-exile community -- could have beneficial effects on Washington's relations with Havana. Foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman writes that he "hopes that this affair will remind the extremists among the Miami Cubans that they are not living in their own private country, that they cannot do whatever they please, and that they may hate Fidel Castro more than they love the U.S. Constitution -- but that doesn't apply to the rest of us."

Friedman says he shares "the Miami Cubans' visceral hatred of Fidel Castro's regime. It is a government that has taught its people to write -- and then forced its most educated to become taxi drivers and, in thousands of cases, prostitutes in order to feed their families." "But," he continues, "the way to hasten the end of this regime is not with embargoes and kidnappings." U.S. policy, he adds, is "driven by blind hatred of Castro by the Miami Cubans, who, because of their perceived voting clout in the key state of Florida, have been able to impose this policy on the whole U.S. -- even though it has had the opposite effect we, and they, want. It punishes Cuba's people and reinforces Castro's hold on power."

In conclusion, Friedman's commentary proposes that we "forget Fidel Castro, [a] spent dictator who peddles Marxism while keeping his economy afloat with [cheap tourism] and prostitution." Better, it suggests, "for shaping post-Castro Cuba is letting more Cubans study in the U.S., training their technocrats in managing a modern state and, yes, opening the way for greater U.S. investment in Cuba, and in money flows, trade and family visits."

NEW YORK TIMES: The Gonzalez case could propel Cuban-American official relations in some ways

In a New York Times new analysis, Jane Perlez writes: "In an immediate sense, the hostility in Cuban-American official relations is unlikely to be touched by the Elian Gonzalez case. But in the longer term, the dispute could encourage trends in American public opinion that favor more relaxed ties."

She goes on: "To change the relationship fundamentally, the trade embargo strengthened by Congress and signed by President Clinton in 1996 would need to be ended, an impossibility in [this presidential] election year and in the current overheated atmosphere. But," she adds, "subtle shifts in Congress and small tinkering by the Clinton administration on the travel ban to Cuba last year point to movements in policy and attitudes that the Gonzalez case could propel in some ways."

Perlez quotes Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Havana 20 years ago, as saying that the Gonzalez case is important because it is "the first time the two governments find themselves on the same side of an issue. The more Cubans are seen [in the U.S.] as normal human beings -- that the father is a decent guy -- [the more] public opinion will swing."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: Fidel Castro has succeeded in imposing his will on the U.S.

A dissenting view is expressed in today's Wall Street Journal Europe, which says that Elian's seizure was "a victory for Fidel." In an editorial, the paper argues: "The raid came on the heels of a big [U.S.] government defeat in [a court that] ruled Elian must stay in the U.S. pending resolution of his asylum case. The court ruled that there is no legal reason a 6-year-old boy cannot apply for asylum. [It] said authorities should ask the child what his wishes were."

The editorial also says the Clinton administration's "resort to force at least skirted the court decision," and argues that that was the result of a decision to elevate Elian's fate "into a national security issue." In any event, the Wall Street Journal says, "the political meaning [of Elian's seizure] is that Fidel Castro has succeeded in imposing his will on the U.S. In time," it sums up, "we may learn precisely why and how, and what it portends for the future. That it will make Fidel a less disruptive force is by no means evident to us."

LE MONDE: The conservatives are risking an explosion

Turning to Iran, two French newspapers explore the implications of the country's shut-down a few days ago of eight pro-reform dailies and several reformist periodicals. In an editorial, Le Monde says this: "The battle taking place in Iran today is rather simple -- and decisive for the future of the Islamic Republic. On one side," it writes, "there are the supporters of change, who want to force an evolution of a country paralyzed by the heritage of the [1979] Islamic Revolution [and] support the president, reformist Mohammed Khatami." On the other side, the paper goes on, "are the conservatives, united behind the country's spiritual 'guide,' Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

The conflict between the two groups, Le Monde argues, has now entered an acute phase. In the paper's words: "With the reformists' overwhelming victory in the first round of parliamentary elections two months ago," the paper says, "they have deprived the conservatives of one of their principle levers of power: the Majlis, or parliament. But the conservatives," it goes on, "refuse to accept the electoral verdict. They [have turned on] the reformists in a series of provocations, as if they were trying to reverse the choice of voters by a sort of spontaneous coup d'etat."

The latest "provocation," the editorial continues, is directed against liberal-minded journalists. The conservatives, it says, have "imprisoned some of the most talented journalists and most courageous newspapers editors." The paper concludes: "The conservatives want to shatter completely a political evolution that, year after year, is marginalizing them further. [The situation today] carries considerable potential for violence. In seeking to block the electoral result, the conservatives are risking an explosion."

LIBERATION: Behind the moderation of the reformists lies the fear of a return to the student riots

In the daily Liberation, a commentary by analyst Jean-Pierre Perrin also describes the crackdown on the reformist journalists as "a sort of coup d'etat." He says: "This is the first time that the conservatives have gone as far in their attacks against reformist groups, thereby further worsening an atmosphere already heavy with tension and general confusion."

Perrin continues: "The decision by the Justice Ministry [to crack down on reformist journalists] comes several days after a violent attack [on the reformist press by Ayatollah] Khamenei, who called it 'an enemy base.'" The commentator says that, given the great danger to the reformists, many observers have expressed surprise at their apparent apathy. The mildness of the reformers' reaction to the obvious danger they face, he adds, "is all the more surprising, given their electoral victory in February, which has given them unprecedented legitimacy."

Nevertheless, Perrin notes, "Khatami and his supporters have been content with a vague, ineffectual counteroffensive that consists of an appeal for respect for the fundamentals of the Islamic Republic." He argues that behind this moderation "lies the fear of a return to the student riots of July 1999 triggered by the close of 'Salam,' a journal close to the reformist group."