Happpy new millennium, everybody! And wasn't that an instructive little episode? All those nutters and even normal citizens conned by doom-mongers into laying in supplies and weapons.

And didn't the media have a lovely time scaring us all to death about terrorism? You'll be happy to know that the Border Patrol at Ojinaga was on full alert. There's more damage done by fear in this world than by evil.

And now for Old Business, as they say in the agenda world. If you want a perfect example of why people despise politicians, try six Republican presidential candidates, each of them taking the position that Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old from Cuba, should remain in this country.

Is there something wrong with me, or is this a no-brainer? According to the boy's relatives in Miami, he is close to his father, who took care of him during the day. Juan Miguel Gonzalez is an excellent father who works as a hotel doorman, meaning he has a job in Cuba's dollar economy. Nor is the boy being sent back to a dreary island prison.

I have news for you: Foreign capital from our closest allies is pouring into Cuba. The Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the Canadians -- everyone but us -- like to go to Cuba and lie out on the beautiful beaches in front of the new hotels. Cuba had 1.65 million tourists last year. Some of them were Americans, who just start from Mexico. Cuba's economy grew by 6.2 percent in 1999.

Some have claimed the child will get a better education here. Actually, Cuba has the best educational system and the best health care in Latin America. Its illiteracy and infant mortality rates are lower than those found in U.S. inner cities. It'd be interesting to find out how Cuban schools compare to Miami's public schools.

Look at this kid. His mother is dead. He doesn't need to go to Disney World. He needs his father. There is something obscene about the assumption that t-shirts and other material benefits will make up for the lack of a loving parent. What is wrong with these people?

What's wrong with the politicians, of course, is they all want the Cuban vote in Southern Florida. Talk about disgusting pandering.

I know that the Cuban-American community contains a substantial range of political opinion, but its loudest voice has always been that of revanchist nutters like the late Jorge Mas Canosa, to whom Fidel Castro is anathema. These are the splendid advocates of democracy who threaten to kill anyone who disagrees with them. Castro jails people who disagree with him. What's the difference?

It is long past high time that this country changed its policy toward Cuba. You must say this for the Bearded One: He has outlasted Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and he will probably outlast Clinton. The guy has staying power.

But he is 73. Tom Walker, a bilingual Texan who wandered around Havana last year interviewing people at random, said that most people told him, "It's time for the Old Man to go." They are still fond of him, but they think the country needs to move on.

Given the mixed record of former communist countries moving to a capitalist economy -- Russia being the chief example of how not to do it -- they might want to start cautiously. There has already been some liberalization of the economy; small businesses and restaurants are allowed to operate for a monthly tax in hard currency.

Castro has the same effect on people in our State Department that the full moon has on wolves: He causes them to howl and foam at the mouth. Ditto our leftover Cold War spook establishment.

One can't argue that our 40-year-old trade embargo hasn't hurt Cuba. It certainly has -- the place is threadbare in many ways because of the embargo. Cuba's economy almost collapsed when the Soviet Union stopped its $6 billion-a-year subsidy. But it bottomed out in '93 and has improved steadily ever since.

Now we're the ones being hurt by the embargo. The Europeans, the Latins and everyone else is pouring in money and grabbing up the prime locations. Frankly, we're being fools. American corporations are champing at the bit to get into the Cuban market. The U.S. Chamber has been to visit.

According to a 1999 Reuters poll, 67 percent of Americans, and even a majority of Miamians, favor removing the embargo. Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri has introduced a bill to remove restrictions of sales of food and medicine to Cuba, which has considerable support.

But Cuban-American political strength, which is particularly potent in Florida and New Jersey, will be out to stop every effort to break down the embargo. Hence the disgusting kowtowing by politicians.

Some Miami Cubans claimed that Castro would use Elian to stage a victory parade through Havana, or some such, whereupon Castro promptly announced he would do no such thing. The Bearded One has a much better sense of public relations than we do. Keeping the kid here is wrong and is making us look like churls the world over. "The U.S.'s relentless vengefulness," said the Irish Times.

Elian's father, all four grandparents and a great-grandmother all wait for him in Cuba. Here, he is in the custody of a paternal great-uncle whom he doesn't know. Hey, Republicans, whatever happened to family values?

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.