CNN Looks Back at Elian Gonzalez Saga

Documentary navigates complex custody fight between Cuba, United States, and Cuban-Americans.


'Elian,' CNN

Elian. CNN. Thursday, August 24, 10 p.m.

The night after Thanksgiving of 2016, the phone in my vacation hotel room in Orlando rang. The death of Fidel Castro had just been announced, and the obituary that I'd been regularly updating for 15 years for the Miami Herald had finally rolled out onto the internet. It caught the eye of a CNN producer, who had tracked me down to ask if I would agree to be interviewed on the air about the reaction of Cuban-Americans.

So far, the dismayed producer said, all the talking heads CNN had been able to round up were saying Miami Cubans would be ecstatically celebrating Castro's departure, and they were hoping for a little balance. You know, a few words about the nostalgic and the bittersweet.

"I'll be happy to go on the air," I told the producer. "But I'm afraid I'm going to say the same thing. Cubans don't come to Miami because they have mixed feelings about him—they come because they hate him. As far as they're concerned, he's a communist who robbed them, bullied them, jailed them, maybe executed some of their relatives. If anybody's crying in Miami tonight, it's because he didn't die 50 years earlier."

The producer was clearly disappointed. I went on the air for a few minutes, but when I was finished, he pointedly didn't thank me. Though I've long ago given up trying to understand why so many American journalists don't recognize Castro for the tyrant he was, this conversation still left me puzzled. How could anybody imagine that there would be even the slightest sympathy for Castro in Miami? Didn't they remember the tale of Elian Gonzalez?

I hope that producer is watching when his network airs the documentary Elian this week. It offers, in painful detail, the whole saga of 5-year-old Elian's 1999 voyage from Cuba to Miami on a boat that broke up and sank somewhere in the Florida Straits. His mother managed to get Elian into an inner tube before slipping beneath the waves with 10 others. The inner tube drifted to Miami, where Elian became the center of an epic tug of war with Havana that ended with federal agents kicking in the door of the home where he was staying, and snatching him at gunpoint so he could be shipped back to Havana.

The Elian story triggered much journalism that ranged from uncomprehending to obscene. Be my guest at choosing which label Eleanor Clift, then of Newsweek, should get for cheerleading the Clinton administration's decision to send Elian back to Cuba, where "he doesn't have to worry about going to school and being shot at, where drugs are not a big problem, where he has access to free medical care and where the literacy rate I believe is higher than this country's." (And no, she didn't send her own kids there.)

This documentary, however, is from an entirely different mold. Put together by Irish filmmakers Trevor Birney and Ross McDonnell, it gets a big boost from the presence of writer-director Tim Golden. As a former Miami Herald reporter who shared in two Pulitzer Prizes for his Latin American coverage, Golden is properly wary both of the myth that Miami's Cuban community is nothing more than a collection of deranged fascists and its counterpart, that Fidel Castro was a misunderstood social democrat. (Full disclosure: Though both Golden and I have worked as Miami Herald foreign correspondents, it was at widely different times.)

The result is a film that picks its way carefully down the middle of the road, seeking to illuminate rather than vituperate, and does an excellent job, both at relating facts and providing context. Elian includes interviews with figures from virtually every chapter of this story, including the boy himself, and all viewpoints get a fair exposure. No doubt people on both sides will point to things that were left out, but the filmmakers were doing a two-hour documentary, not an epic miniseries, and there's no partisan pattern to what's missing.

Aside from his young age, the Elian story was not a new one on either side of the Florida Straits. Until President Barack Obama, in the waning days of his presidency, ended a U.S. policy of automatically granting asylum to any Cuban who was able to reach the United States, refugees fled the island on boats thousands of times a year. Many didn't make it. Those who did were routinely absorbed into Miami's enormous exile community with little fuss or muss.

But the circumstances of Elian's arrival—on Thanksgiving Day, cradled in an inner tube and surrounded by a cavorting school of dolphins that caught the attention of passing fishermen—seemed, to many Miami Cubans, to encapsulate their collective experience.

Outsiders would later mock their feelings as manufactured propaganda. But thousands of Cubans reached American shores during the 1960s only through their sacrifices of their parents in the so-called Operation Pedro Pan, in which adults, who couldn't get exit visas, put their children, who could, onto commercial airliners bound for the United States, gambling that American charity would take care of them. Amazingly, it did. For many Cuban-Americans, Elian's survival was simply a more dramatic version of what they regard as the ongoing miracle of their own existence.

And as t-shirts, leaflets and newspaper advertisements (under a big bold headline, "ANOTHER CHILD VICTIM OF FIDEL CASTRO") began celebrating that fact, Fidel Castro realized he was losing propaganda. For decades, he had dismissed the Miami exiles as gusanos, "worms," a species of life too low to appreciate his revolution. He presented Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez (who said he hadn't known his divorced wife was taking the boy to Miami) as a victimized spouse who wanted his child back. In Miami, camera crews swarmed around the house of an uncle who had taken Elian in; in Havana, around the massive daily demonstrations around what was then the U.S. Interests Section, the American diplomatic outpost on the island.

Elian presents this struggle as a family feud at two levels—between the boy's father and grandmothers in Havana and his uncles and cousins in Miami, but also between two branches of a Cuban population divided by ideology and geography. Each saw the situation through the lens of its own experience. In Miami, it was obvious that Elian's mother had given her life to get her son away from Castro's suffocating totalitarianism, and her choice had to be honored and supported. In Havana, it was obvious that the child was being illegally detained by the traitorous handmaidens of American imperialism.

Or, at least in some parts of Havana, particularly the president's office. As Elian quietly suggests, it's not always easy to tell what people are thinking in a country where disagreement with government policy can result in anything from suspension of a ration card to a tour of the gruesome prison system.

Even Juan Miguel Gonzalez, interviewed for the documentary, does not pretend there was anything remotely spontaneous about the Havana demonstrations on his behalf. "Our entire country will take to the streets to demand your son back," he recalls Castro saying, urging him to demand Elian's return. How many of those demonstrators were planning their own escape even as they obediently shouted for the cameras is impossible to know.

But we do know that Juan Miguel himself was oddly reluctant to fly to Miami to pick his son up, even before the mutual hostility between the two sides hardened to an impossible barrier. For months he dismissed the suggestion with the breezy comment that there was no need because "I haven't lost anything in Miami." (To which a Miami cousin retorts in the documentary, "What about your son?")

When he did show up, months later, it was not to Miami but Washington, D.C., where minders from the Cuban Interests Section could keep a close hand on him. The exiles' suspicion that Castro wouldn't permit Juan Miguel to visit for fear he'd defect is hard to refute. "Neither Juan Miguel nor the Cuban government offered any compelling reason why he couldn't just go and get his son," the documentary observes.

As for Castro, if his concern for Cuban children at sea was sincere, it must have been the product of an extremely recent insight. Just six years before, several of his tugboats had attacked a vessel called the 13 de Marzo packed with 72 refugees trying to flee the island. The tugs first sprayed the 13 de Marzo with high-pressure hoses, knocking many of the refugees off into the seas. Then they rammed it, crushing the stern and sending it to the bottom of the sea with dozens of people trapped below decks. Of the 41 dead, 10 were kids like Elian. The 13 de Marzo massacre, unfortunately, is one of the bits of history shedding light on the Elian story that didn't make it into the documentary.

But, as I mentioned earlier, there's a lot of story to tell. Elian details all the various legal wrangling over the child's status and the Justice Department's decision to send him back, climaxing the Justice Department's armed raid on his uncle's home. The eyewitness accounts from inside the home are a terrifying reminder of how utterly out-of-control the Justice Department was during the 1990s: SWAT team members stormed through the rooms, pointing assault rifles at the unarmed occupants and screaming, "Where's the fucking kid?" and threatening to shoot Elian's 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez. Perhaps those dolphins who escorted the boy's inner tube were still working their magic, because it seems a miracle that the rain didn't end in another Waco or Ruby Ridge.

Most of the main players who are still alive agreed to interviews with the Elian crew and they're allowed to tell their stories in a dignified way—particularly Marisleysis, who acted as Elian's surrogate mother during his Miami stay and fought like a tigress to keep him. It's still difficult to tell whether the stolid Juan Miguel is speaking his own words or those of the Maximum Leader, but he certainly doesn't come across as a stooge.

There's a whiff of revisionism only from Elian himself, now a 23-year-old college graduate, who is giddily fulsome in his praise of Fidel Castro for saving him from a degrading life of capitalistic hedonism. "Instead of being my family's spoiled child, instead of being the prodigal son, I'm only Elian, nothing more than that," he insists. Yes, just a typical Cuba kid who had Fidel dropping by with birthday gifts every year.

Listening to Elian recite the glories of the revolution (at one point, he actually said that he's not religious, but if he were, "My God would be Fidel") I was struck by a memory of Walter Polovchak, who briefly made headlines in 1980. When his Ukrainian immigrant parents decided to return to what was then the Soviet Union, the 12-year-old Walter ran away instead. And despite the best efforts of the ACLU and a cadre of child psychologists, he managed to stay in the United States. He actually visited Elian one day in Miami. Afterward, Walter said, he hoped the little boy wouldn't be forced back to Cuba. "I hope Americans remember that the country where he's being sent is communist and what that means—that any human being, including a child, is the property of the state," he said. Watching Elian on camera, it's pretty clear who holds the deed.