Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban Boy Who Became a Political Pawn

The Elian Gonzalez Affair and Its Impact on US-Cuba Relations

Elian Gonzalez in Miami, 2000
Elian Gonzalez waves to supporters as his cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez lifts him, outside his Miami home April 21, 2000.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Elian Gonzalez is a Cuban citizen who was brought to the U.S. in 1999 by his mother on a boat that capsized and killed almost all of its passengers. Despite his father's pleas to return his five-year-old son to Cuba, Elian's Miami-based relatives insisted on keeping him in the U.S. The little boy was used as a political pawn in the decades-long fight between the Cuban government and anti-communist Miami Cuban exiles. After months of court battles, U.S. federal agents raided the Miami relatives' home to seize Elian and return him to his father. The Elian Gonzalez affair is considered a major development in Cuba-U.S. policy.

Fast Facts: Elian Gonzalez

  • Full Name: Elián González Brotons
  • Known For: Surviving a treacherous sea voyage from Cuba to the U.S. as a five-year-old boy and becoming a political pawn in the fight between Miami Cuban exiles and the Cuban government.
  • Born: December 6, 1993 in Cárdenas, Cuba
  • Parents: Juan Miguel González, Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez
  • Education: University of Matanzas, Engineering, 2016

Early Life

Elian Gonzalez Brotons was born to Juan Miguel González and Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez on December 6, 1993 in the port city of Cárdenas, on Cuba's northern coast. Although the couple had divorced in 1991, they still decided to have a child together. They separated in 1996 for good, but remained co-parents. In 1999, Brotons was convinced by her boyfriend, Lázaro Munero, to flee Cuba via boat, and they took five-year-old Elian with them, effectively kidnapping him (as Brotons didn't have permission from Juan Miguel).

Voyage to the U.S.

An aluminum boat carrying 15 passengers left Cárdenas in the early morning hours of November 21, 1999. A few days later, the boat capsized off the Florida Keys, and all passengers except Elian and two adults drowned. Two fishermen spotted an inner tube around 9:00 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, November 25, and rescued the little boy, taking him to the hospital for medical treatment. The next day, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, the former name for ICE) released him into the temporary custody of his great-uncles, Lázaro and Delfín González, and Lázaro's daughter Marisleysis, who became a temporary mother figure to the boy.

Elián with his cousin Marisleysis in Miami
Marisleysis Gonzalez (L) helps her cousin Elian Gonzalez (C) decorate a Christmas tree at her home in Miami 22 December, 1999, after finding out that immigration officials have delayed a hearing to decide the six-year-old's fate to 21 January, 2000.  Bill Cooke / Getty Images

Almost immediately, Juan Miguel González demanded the return of his son to Cuba and even filed a complaint with the United Nations to gain visibility, but his uncles refused. The State Department recused itself in the matter of custody, leaving it up to the Florida courts.

A Little Boy Becomes a Political Pawn

Just days after his rescue, the Miami exile community saw an opportunity to humiliate Fidel Castro and began using photos of Elian on posters, declaring him "another child victim of Fidel Castro." As discussed by Miguel De La Torre, a scholar who studies religion in Latin America, Miami Cubans saw him not only as a symbol of the evils of Cuban socialism, but as a sign from God that the Castro regime was on its last legs. They viewed his survival in the treacherous waters as a miracle and even began circulating the myth that dolphins had encircled Elian's inner tube to protect him from sharks.

Local politicians flocked to the González home for photo-ops and an influential political consultant, Armando Gutiérrez, appointed himself spokesperson for the family. The hardline Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) also got involved. Elian's relatives threw him a big 6th birthday bash on December 6, attended by major politicians like Congressional representative Lincoln Díaz-Balart.

Elián González and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Elian Gonzalez is held by Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fl., during the Three Kings Parade 09 January, 2000, in Miami's Little Havana.  Rhona Wise / Getty Images

Elian's Miami relatives soon filed for political asylum for the little boy, stating that his mother had fled Cuba seeking freedom for her son and that she would have wanted him to remain with his Miami relatives. Contradicting this narrative, Brotons did not appear to have fled Cuba as a political refugee, but rather was following her boyfriend to Miami. In fact, journalist Ann Louise Bardach, who has written extensively on Cuba, notes that Brotons hadn't even planned on contacting the González family, as they were relatives of her ex-husband.

On the other side of the Florida Strait, Fidel Castro milked the Elian affair for political capital, demanding the boy be returned to his father and staging mass, government-organized demonstrations drawing tens of thousands of Cubans.

Cuban rallies demanding Elián's return
Some 160,000 Cuban children march 12 June, 2000, to the US Interest Office in Havana to demand the return of six-year-old Elian Gonzalez. Adalberto Roque / Getty Images 

In January 2000, the INS ruled that Elian should be returned to his father in Cuba within a week. There were mass demonstrations to protest the ruling in Miami. Elian's relatives filed to declare Lázaro González his legal guardian. While a local court granted him emergency custody, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno rejected the ruling, insisting that the family file in federal court.

On January 21, Elian's two grandmothers traveled from Cuba to visit with their grandson, the result of a deal between U.S. diplomats and Fidel Castro. They were able to visit with Elian at a neutral location in Miami, but were never allowed to be alone with him and felt he was being manipulated by Marisleysis the whole time. The Miami exile community had predicted that either or both of the women would defect from Cuba during their time in the U.S., but neither expressed any desire to that effect.

Elián González's grandmothers meet with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, 2000
US Rep. Maxine Waters (C), D-CA, speaks to reporters outside her office after meeting with grandmothers of six-year-old Cuban Elian Gonzalez, Raquel Rodriguez (L) and Mariela Quintana (2nd R) 28 January 2000 on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.  Chris Kleponis / Getty Images

In April, the State Department approved visas for Juan Miguel and his new wife and son to travel to the U.S. They arrived on April 6 and met with Janet Reno on April 7; soon after, Reno announced the government's intentions to return Elian to his father. On April 12, Reno initiated negotiations with the Miami González family, but they refused to release Elian.

The Raid

Fed up with the stalling of the González family, on April 22, before dawn, federal agents raided their home and seized Elian, reuniting him with his father. Due to court proceedings and mass demonstrations, they were not able to return to Cuba until June 28.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez returning to Cuba with Elián
Juan Miguel Gonzalez, right, speaks to reporters as attorney Gregory Craig looks on before he boards a jet for his return to Cuba with his son Elian Gonzalez June 28, 2000 at Dulles International Airport in Washington.  Alex Wong / Getty Images

Miami Cubans had miscalculated the larger reception of attempting to keep Elian away from his father. Instead of generating sympathy for their anti-Castro ideology, it backfired and led to widespread critique among Americans. NPR's Tim Padgett stated, "The world called Miami a banana republic. Critics said the Cuban-American community's intolerance—and the way it turned a traumatized child into a political football—was more reminiscent of none other than ... Fidel Castro."

A former CANF president later admitted that it was a huge mistake and that he had not taken into account the perspective of more recent Cuban exiles (such as the Marielitos and "balseros" or rafters), who were in favor of normalizing relations with Cuba because of their continued ties with family members on the island. In fact, the Elian affair aided the argument of Miami Cubans who wanted normalization: they highlighted the ineffectiveness and exaggerated nature of the rhetoric surrounding the longstanding hardline U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Return to Cuba and Relationship With Fidel

Elian and Juan Miguel were given a hero's welcome upon their return to Cuba. From that point on, Elian ceased to be just another Cuban boy. Fidel regularly attended his birthday parties. In 2013, he said to the Cuban media, "Fidel Castro for me is like a father...I don't profess to have any religion, but if I did my God would be Fidel Castro. He is like a ship that knew to take his crew on the right path." Elian continued to be invited to high-profile political events and was part of the official mourning ceremonies for Castro following his November 2016 death.

Elián and Juan Miguel González with Fidel Castro
Cuban President Fidel Castro (C) talks with Elian Gonzalez (L), 14 July 2001 in Cardenas, Cuba during a political gathering to inaugurate the "Museo a la Batalla de Ideas", where a range of objects relating to Elian's custody battle in the US is being exhibited. Adalberto Roque / Getty Images 

Juan Miguel was elected to the Cuban National Assembly in 2003; a waiter by profession, it's unlikely that political ambitions would have surfaced if his son had not been the focus of a major controversy.

Elian Gonzalez Today

In 2010, Elian entered the military academy and went on to study industrial engineering at the University of Matanzas. He graduated in 2016 and currently works as a technology specialist for a state-run company.

Elián González, 2016
Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy who was rescued off the coast of Florida 16 years ago, talks to the press at Havana's Revolution Square where people are paying their respects to Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on November 29, 2016, as tributes to the late former president are being held across the country.  STR / Getty Images

Elian has been one of the most outspoken defenders of the Revolution in his generation and is a member of the Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (Young Communist League), the Cuban Communist Party's youth organization. In 2015, he stated, "I have fun, play sports, but I am also involved with the work of the revolution and realize that young people are essential for the development of the country." He noted how lucky he was to have survived the dangerous voyage from Cuba to the U.S. and, echoing the Cuban government's rhetoric, blamed the U.S. embargo for pushing people to flee by boat: "Just like [my mother], many others have died attempting to go to the United States. But it's the U.S. government's fault...Their unjust embargo provokes an internal and critical economic situation in Cuba."

In 2017, CNN Films released a documentary about Elian featuring interviews with him, his father, and his cousin Marisleysis. On his 25th birthday, in December 2018, he created a Twitter account. Thus far, he has only posted one tweet, which states that he decided to create an account to thank Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel for his birthday wishes and to follow and support him.

Sources

  • Bardach, Ann Louise. Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana. New York: Random House, 2002.
  • De La Torre, Miguel A. La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
  • Vulliamy, Ed. "Elián González and the Cuban crisis: fallout from a big row over a little boy." The Guardian, 20 February 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/feb/21/elian-gonzalez-cuba-tug-war, accessed 29 September 2019.