THE story of Elián González, a small, shipwrecked Cuban boy who was at the centre of an international custody battle in 2000, should have taught even the most militant American opponent of Cuba’s Communist president, Fidel Castro, that splitting families makes for bad politics. It seems not to have done.
With his eye on holding Florida in this year’s presidential election, George Bush has tightened the rules on contacts between Cuban-Americans and their families back on the island. From June 30th, Cuban-Americans can make only one two-week visit every three years, instead of unrestricted annual visits. They will not be able to send as much money to people on the island, and none beyond their immediate families. All humanitarian visits have been scrapped.
Mr Castro has been searching since the “battle of Elián” for another issue on which to rally Cubans and deflect international criticism away from his own refusal to allow dissent against his government or a free election. He clearly reckons he has found it. “Pitiless” and “brutal”, he exclaimed about the new American measures at a rally of thousands of CubansóElián and his family among themólast week outside the United States’ diplomatic mission in Havana. A few weeks earlier, the dictator had led 1m people past the building.
Mr Bush says that limiting the flow of dollars to Cuba will hasten the overthrow of Mr Castro’s regimeóa familiar argument used by previous presidents to justify America’s failed trade embargo on the island. But the latest measures will hit precisely those whom the Americans might be expected to want to help, such as the owners of beleaguered family businesses. Some small restaurants and bed-and-breakfast houses, many of which depend on trade from Cuban-Americans, say business is down by as much as half. Some Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits are already looking for third-country routes to bypass the measures.
And the new policy may not, in fact, help Mr Bush much in the election. In the past two decades, Florida’s Cuban community has doubled in size, with the arrival of 400,000 mainly economic immigrants. These have strong family ties at home; many are furious about the new restrictions. John Kerry, Mr Bush’s Democratic challenger, says he would allow unlimited family visits if elected. That could be the vote-winner.