Bill Clinton, nearing the end of his press conference Wednesday, was not feeling the pain of Elian Gonzalez when asked about the fate of the 6-year-old Cuban. The normally voluble president was brusque and cryptic in saying, "There is a legal process for determining . . . what would be best for the child." But what legal process?

The answer came coldly the next day at Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder's weekly press conference. He made clear the case would not go to federal court or to a Florida state court. "I would expect that the final decision will be made within the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service]." Translation: Elian, say goodbye to the freedom of Florida and hello to the oppression of Cuba.

Government lawyers claimed to have found a legal technicality to keep the Cuban boy's fate away from unpredictable judges. Because Elian, in dire physical condition, was taken straight to a hospital when he arrived in Miami, he was not formally paroled.

That consigns him to the INS, which asks but two questions. Is Juan Miguel Gonzalez in Cuba really his father? Does he have a good relationship with Elian? The answers, of course, will be yes, and the boy is gone, lacking effective legal intervention.

Holder was fulfilling the president's wishes. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida, the leading Cuban-American Republican politician, interpreted it this way: "Clinton has agreed to [Cuban President Fidel] Castro's demands that Janet Reno make this decision."

On the day that Holder revealed the U.S. government's bleak plans for Elian, Texas Gov. George W. Bush was asked about the case on the New Hampshire campaign trail. "I think the father ought to be allowed to come here, and then he can make the choice," Bush replied. "Let him get a whiff of freedom, and make the decision from the soil here."

That is the position of Diaz-Balart and Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba -- with one caveat. They would require that the elder Gonzalez be accompanied by his family members, to preclude them from becoming hostages in Cuba. But Fidel Castro won't allow anyone to leave. Indeed, the Cuban government has announced that Juan Miguel is ill.

Why does Clinton not feel Elian's pain? Surely, the president would not return to Serbia or Iraq a refugee boy who, happy with relatives here, says he wants to stay. Liberals have a soft spot for the Cuban dictator. Despite Castro's brutal police state, dabbling in illegal narcotics trafficking and defiant promise of dictatorship forever, Clinton views him differently.

For seven years, the president has balanced two conflicting goals: normalized relations with Communist Cuba and support from the Cuban-American vote in Florida and elsewhere. Clinton has emphasized the latter goal, with his Cuban inroads enabling him to carry Florida in 1996. But as his White House days dwindle, the former goal takes precedence. So much for Elian Gonzalez.

That appalls more than Cuban expatriates and Clinton-bashing conservatives. Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz, a liberal and a civil libertarian, told me: "The United States has a responsibility to ask what kind of country we are sending this boy back to." He fears for the boy's future in Cuba.

Intense international pressure was needed for Castro to release the 5-year-old son of jazz saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, who had defected. Neurosurgeon Hilda Molina, a critic of the regime, has been denied a brief family reunion with her 6-year-old son in Argentina. Former Cuban Air Force major Orestes Lorenzo piloted an old twin-engined Cessna into Cuba to rescue his wife and two sons. Clinton said last Wednesday that Elian's case should be handled "without regard to politics," but it is all politics with Fidel.

I telephoned Walter Polovchak, who as a 12-year-old avoided being sent to his parents in the Soviet Union at the insistence of federal bureaucrats. Now a 31-year-old businessman in Des Plaines, Ill., Polovchak emphasized how bitter his life would have been had his father prevailed and said of the little Cuban: "He needs to have an opportunity to stay in this country." President Clinton is denying him that opportunity.

(C)1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.