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Elian Gonzalez: The symbol of Cuban/American Politics

In the Florida Straits, where so many Cubans have lost their lives trying to make their

way across the final barrier to the United States, another small, overloaded boat sunk, drowning a

young woman and leaving her 5-year-old son floating alone. The immigration status and custody

of a young Cuban boy, Elián González, was in the middle of an intense controversy in 2000.

There were several people involved, including the governments of Cuba and the United States,

his father, his Miami and Cuban relatives, and the Cuban-American community of Miami.

However, after the Miami relatives’ appeals were faced with several rejections by the 11th

Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, and a refusal to hear the case by the U.S. Supreme Court,

Elián González returned to Cuba with his father, Juan Miguel González-Quintana, on June 28,

2000.

After seven miscarriages, Elizabeth Brotons Gonzalez gave birth to Elián in Candenas,

Cuba. His name is a combination of his parent’s names: Elizabeth and Juan. Elizabeth and Juan

decided to get a divorce in 1997 due to the tension from the inability to conceive. The divorce

was somewhat good-natured however, and they seemed to have ended on good terms, sharing

joint custody of their son. On November 12th 1999, Elián, his mother, and twelve others left Cuba

on a small aluminum boat with a faulty engine; Elián's mother and ten others died in the

crossing. The boat was operated by his mother's boyfriend, who resided in Miami and smuggled

Cubans into the U.S. for money. Elián and the other two survivors completed the journey across

the Florida Straits on an inner tube. Elián was rescued at sea by two fishermen who then gave

him to the U.S. Coast Guard.

When he washed up on US soil, the controversy began. Who was this little boy, what was

he doing here, and where did he belong? Marisleysis Gonzalez, Elián's cousin, served as a
translator between the authorities and the little boy. Elián told her the motor had broken on the

boat and eveyone on the boat had tried to empty the water out with nylon bags, but a storm

stopped them from doing so. He told his cousin that he tried to help remove the water from the

motor and that his mother’s boyfriend put him in an inner tube for safety. According to

Marisleysis, Elián says he fell asleep and when he woke up his mother was gone forever. Elián

thought his mom drowned because she didn’t know how to swim. The Immigration and

Naturalization Service released Elián to his paternal great-uncle, Lázaro González. Elián's father

Juan Miguel González-Quintana had telephoned Lázaro from Cuba on November 22, 1999, to

advise that Elián and his mother had left Cuba without Juan Miguel's knowledge, and to watch

for their arrival. However, Lázaro González, backed by local Cuban-Americans, soon took the

position that the boy should remain in the United States, and not be returned to his father in

Cuba. Lázaro's adult daughter, Marisleysis, became the principal caretaker of Elián, and quickly

became a well-known television figure. Armando Gutierrez, a local Miami-based Cuban

American activist became the family spokesperson and a close friend of the family.

However, Juan Miguel, with the support of his nation’s authorities demanded that his son

be returned so he could care/love for him, and raise his own son. The conflict instigated the

political turmoil that only ended when Elián was flown back to Cuba with his father, his father’s

wife, their son, and a cousin, on June 28, 2000. For much of early 2000, Elián’s plight dominated

the news in the United States and in Cuba.

Hostility between Cuba and the United States has been constant since the Cuban

Revolution. During that period, a large number of Cubans have attempted to sneak off to the

United States to live because they were looking for different political, social, and economic

conditions. They had to do travel and live here covertly, however, because this emigration is

illegal under both US and Cuban law. Any Cuban found at sea attempting to reach United States
shores will be deported by the US Coast Guard. Or, if they are discovered by Cuban police they

are ostracized and prohibited from most Cuban institutions. US policy has changed into a more

moderate rule, though. If a Cuban is picked up at sea or walking toward the shore, he or she will

be sent back by force, however if he or she can make it to shore, he or she is permitted to make a

case for political asylum. This is sometimes referred to as the “wet feet, dry feet” rule.

Under US policy, Cubans who make it to US soil are usually allowed to remain in the

country and even given an opportunity to assert a claim to refugee status, generally with the

understanding that they would face persecution if they were returned to Cuba. Due to confusion

of the Cuban policy, the conclusion has been made that there is no systematic policy of the

Cuban government to persecute the Cubans who have returned. So, everyone was unsure of what

to do with little seven year old Elián.

Under US policy, Cubans who make it to US soil are usually allowed to remain in the

country and even given an opportunity to assert a claim to refugee status, generally with the

understanding that they would face persecution if they were returned to Cuba. Due to confusion

of the Cuban policy, the conclusion has been made that there is no systematic policy of the

Cuban government to persecute the Cubans who have returned. So, everyone was unsure of what

to do with little seven year old Elián when he washed ashore in 2000. It was again, another

battle between Cuba and American, a symbol of the bad relations between Cuba and America,

bad relations that have been around since the Revolution (which started in 1950.)

After several appearances and appeals in court, and conflicts between Elizabeth Broton’s

(his mother) and Juan Miguel’s families, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the return of

Elian to his father and set a deadline of April 13th, 2000, but the Miami relatives refused and

defied the order. Negotiations between the Cuban and American families continued for several
days as the house was surrounded by protesters and political activists in addition to the police.

Attempted negotiations carried on throughout the night, but Reno stated that the relatives

(American relatives, that is) rejected every single workable solution. A Florida family court

judge revoked Lázaro’s temporary custody, clearing the way for Elián to be returned to his

father’s custody. On April 20th, Janet Reno made the decision to remove Elián González from the

house and instructed law enforcement officials to determine the best time to pick up the boy. All

of the protestors and political activists who had been protecting Elián for days talked about

making a human chain around the house. Elián’s cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez, made threats to

injure anybody who tried to “abduct” Elian from their house. But that didn’t stop the Border

Patrol from sending eight SWAT-equipped agents to take Elián “home.”

Four hours after he was taken from the house in Miami, Elián and his father were

reunited. The media went crazy with the whole affair on both sides. They published pictures of

him being taken from the house in Miami, with a terrified look on his face, suggesting that he

was happy in Miami and the decision Janet Reno made was wrong. They also published pictures

of him ecstatic, with his father in Cuba, and pictures of him with Fidel Castro. These pictures

suggested that he belonged in Cuba and was the happiest when he was with his father. It is

difficult to know how Elián actually felt or where he truly wanted to be because his family, and

the government were so politically active in the whole affair that they would do anything to keep

him in their country. According to a 60 Minutes interview, Elian his happy today and has

embraced Fidel Castro as both a friend and a “real father.”