MIAMI - For decades, Cuban exiles in South Florida have successfully taken local politics from the streets of Miami to the halls of Congress, using their political influence and acumen to shape foreign policy and keep the Cuban trade embargo intact.
With the recent change in Cuban-exile leadership and with many members of Congress and business leaders questioning the wisdom of the embargo, the Cubans have seen their influence wane.
But when Elian Gonzalez was plucked out of the ocean and placed in the home of relatives in Little Havana - the symbolic capital of the exile community - the little boy became a rallying cry among the Cuban group.
In the aftermath of the pre-dawn seizure Saturday, it's unclear whether the Elian case has helped reinvigorate the group or has led to a lessening of its political influence. But one thing is certain: The exiles' leadership is in flux, possibly recasting the decades-old politics surrounding U.S.-Cuba relations.
"Definitely, we're seeing a struggle here for the exile community to come up with a leader," said Sofia Powell-Cosio, 34, director of Alliance of Young Cubans, a grass-roots organization. "For many years this community relied on caudillismo - one prominent leader who made the decisions for all of us. That's no longer the case."
The dominant player among exiles has always been the Cuban American National Foundation, among the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. Foundation leaders got involved in the Elian case from the beginning, helping the boy's Miami relatives polish their image, rallying the community to support their efforts to keep the boy and, many believe, bankrolling the family's legal efforts to keep the boy.
The legal battle and rhetoric quickly escalated beyond keeping Elian in Miami, with the message that the boy should not be sent back to Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
But their efforts to use Elian to spotlight their crusade against Mr. Castro may have backfired.
"Whenever you launch and take a position on anything, the first thing you should ask is, 'Can you win?' and, second, 'Are you really on the right side of the battle?' " said Cuban-born Gustavo Marin, a business law professor and former leader of Democrats for Democracy in Cuba, an exile organization.
The latter question is still being debated.
Many in Cuba blame the exiles for turning the boy into a political tool to forestall any change in U.S.-Cuba relations. The same argument is made by Cubans in Miami who say that Mr. Castro wants to use the boy to open relations without making any real concessions.
"I've never seen an issue as universal as this," said Maria Christina Herrera, founder of the Institute of Cuban Studies, a 31-year-old community organization. "I think both sides of the Cuban nation are sorely in need of valid symbols. They've exhausted what they had. Elian is a fresh, enticing, beautiful symbol. That's why both sides are fighting to the teeth for him."
A Cuban diplomat said exile leaders, and the foundation in particular, erred in making a political issue out of a custody battle.
"They were seeing a political result when all this was about was uniting father and son," said Luis Fernandez of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. "This showed the world that they are people with no scruples, willing to sacrifice a boy for their own political gain so that they could say, 'We won this battle with Cuba.'
"It is true that there has been cooperation between both governments. But this case was a human problem, which everyone was interested in solving.
"Cuba has always said it is willing to work toward normalizing relations so long as there is mutual respect, respect for our dignity, our sovereignty. Many things remain to be resolved before one can say that the political climate between both nations has changed."
Foundation representatives dismiss the criticism, saying that their interest lies in the future of the boy. "We are fighting for what we believe is a just cause," said Ninoska Perez Castellon, a foundation spokeswoman.
Exiles in Miami had been led by Jorge Mas Canosa, an impassioned man who introduced exile issues to the Washington power structure as the founder and head of the Cuban American National Foundation. Under his leadership, the foundation's influence grew.
But since his death in 1997, the foundation's strength has been weakened by a perceived notion on a local and national level that its backers are predominantly made up of older-generation Cubans who no longer are in touch with the realities of today's Cuba. Many consider the foundation to be a foundering organization because of its refusal to give up what some consider an ineffective weapon: tough U.S. policy such as the trade embargo to topple Mr. Castro's regime.
In the spotlight
The battle over Elian put the foundation in the spotlight, with Mr. Canosa's eldest son, Jorge Mas Santos, at the helm. While the 37-year-old has been loyal to the cause - consistently stating that sending Elian back to Cuba would be giving Mr. Castro a trophy for 41 years of tyranny - many have criticized his ability to lead the fight.
Criticism was particularly brutal following a failed agreement announced by Mr. Mas Santos on Capitol Hill that Elian's Miami relatives would meet with the boy's father.
The behind-the-scenes arrangement was brokered with the help of Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J. But it fell apart within hours when Elian's great-uncle and caretaker Lazaro Gonzalez publicly stated that he would not be part of a reunion that would include a transfer of custody.
The miscommunication left a sour taste in many parts of Miami. Mr. Mas Santos, who should have come out as the hero for devising an apparent solution to the dilemma, had to backpedal the following day. He blamed the Justice Department for making statements that gave the appearance that the reunion meant a transfer of custody.
Now, the Miami relatives are trying to see Elian, who is with his Cuban father in the Washington area. An appeal for political asylum for the boy is not expected to succeed because the Immigration and Naturalization Service has ruled that only his father could speak for him, and the boy's father has said he wants to return to Cuba.
The foundation's future will depend on whether they can play a role in keeping a united front. And the front must be defined by the entire community in order to succeed.
"The conventional view is that the exile community has lost its political clout, but I feel that any administration that wants a transition in Cuba will have to involve the Cuban American community," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuba and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami. "They are the ones who have family issues and land issues in Cuba. You can't normalize relations without counting on the [exile] community."