By Thomas Catán - The Financial Times. 6 Apr 2000 01:47GMT
The television crews, with their satellite transmitters and helicopters circling overhead, are confirmation that the modest white bungalow where Elián González lives is at the centre of an international political storm.
In fact, this otherwise quiet area of "Little Havana" has wielded prodigious influence over US politics for more than 40 years, since the first of its residents fled Fidel Castro's revolution.
In a testament to their enduring influence, Vice-President Al Gore broke with his administration's line last week and supported calls for the Cuban boy, who washed up on US shores last Thanksgiving, to be granted permanent residence.
The explanation has always run something like this: Cuban-Americans, who account for a large proportion of the vote in Miami, are indispensable to any presidential candidate wishing to win the state, one of the largest prizes in the complex arithmetic of US presidential elections. In addition, a
well-oiled Cuban-American political machine controls millions of dollars in donations and can mount blistering campaigns against candidates it dislikes.
But the days when Cuban exiles could wield such mighty influence over American politics and foreign policy might well be numbered.
Cuban-Americans have long had an image as intransigent hard-liners, often seen to be on the fringes of US politics. But until now, they have also been on the right side of the debate.
After Cuban fighters shot down an unarmed aircraft piloted by anti-Castro crusaders before the elections in 1996, the outcry forced President Bill Clinton to sign the unpalatable Helms-Burton Act. This law, meant to strengthen sanctions against Cuba, soured relations with US trading partners,
made it look like a global bully and placed Cuba policy firmly in the hands of Congress.
This time, however, things are different. In the latest Gallup poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans said they approved of the government's decision to send Elián back to Cuba. Just over half said the Clinton administration was making the decision based on what it feels is best for US
relations with Cuba.
Increasingly, the exiles are out of step. At times, the rhetoric from Miami has sometimes seemed almost secessionist, with two local mayors going before the television cameras to say they won't help the federal government enforce the law.
All of which makes Mr Gore's overture to the Cuban community more perplexing to people within his own party.
Aides are already battling the perception among voters that their candidate will say or do anything to get elected, and his statements didn't help in that regard.
And whatever he says on this issue, the hard-core Cuban vote is unlikely to come Mr Gore's way.
Cuban exiles have long been fervent supporters of the Republican party, and its candidate, George W. Bush, has backed their position from the start.
More likely, Mr Gore is aiming to keep his edge among other Hispanic voters, who have a big presence not only in Florida, but in other key states such as California, Texas and New York.
In contrast with previous Republican candidates, George W. Bush has been extremely popular among Hispanics, a large proportion of whom voted for his re-election as governor in Texas. But the Cuban-American vote is not the Hispanic vote.
Indeed, of the Latin American immigrants that are politicised, many are more likely to be sympathetic to Castro's Cuba than the Cuban exiles.
Even the Cuban-American vote is not nearly as monolithic as it once was, with many new immigrants less politically inclined.
At bottom, there is a class issue masked by one of race. Many of the Cubans who originally fled Cuba were professionals, land-owners or businessmen, who quickly rebuilt their lives in Miami and have been tremendously successful since. New Cuban immigrants, as well as the Dominicans, Haitians,
Mexicans and central Americans who make their way to the US, are most often from the poorest classes in their own countries.
The moment of truth will come when the time the exiles have been waiting for arrives and Castro dies. Despite their accumulated political influence, many have never assimilated in the US, thinking they will one day return to their homes in Havana.
It remains to be seen how many will then wish to give up the comforts of Miami for the dereliction of Havana, particularly for the many now born in the US.