Culture

What I, A Cuban-American, Learned By Watching The Elián González Documentary On CNN

I grew up in a Cuban immigrant household that was filled with people that were very much against the revolution and Castro. Over the years, I was told countless stories of the atrocities that were being committed on the Caribbean island and why my family left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. I was born in 1989 in New Jersey, making me a first-generation Cuban-American. Before you ask, yes. My parents met in Miami and we eventually moved back, but not for long.

By 1999, my family moved back to Miami then up to a small, rural town in the Florida panhandle, just a 15-minute drive from the Alabama state line. That was also the same year that 5-year-old Elián González was found floating in an inner tube near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents and grandparents to speak openly about the Cuban nationals that were being found in the water, but for a child this young to be found alone was something different. I could tell by how they addressed the matter.

Partly because of my age and partly because of our geographic separation from Miami, I was not aware of what was going on. I only knew one thing: we did not want Elián sent back to his father in Cuba. In fact, my family thought Juan González, Elián’s father, was a bad father for wishing for his child to be returned to Cuba. The argument was always backed up with emotion as his mother, Elizabeth Brotons, literally gave her life so her son could be free. This is something a lot of Cuban parents were willing to risk to save their children from a growing regime set on oppressing the Cuban people.

Fast forward to 2017. I am a 28-year-old journalist living in Los Angeles and working for the Latino media company mitú. Until moving to L.A., I wasn’t that in tune with the Latino community at large. I knew about Cuban culture but I was never fully immersed in it unless on vacation to see my family. My parents always tried to make sure that my brother and I learned Cuban culture as much as possible, but we were living in a region affectionately known as “the Redneck Riviera.” Sure, I spoke Spanish with mis abuelos and I would always curl up on the couch with my abuela to watch the evening novelas. However, Cuban culture started and stopped in my home. As soon as I left those doors, I was in white, cowboy country. Where I grew up was a 9-hour drive from Miami. We only made trips south to visit family for the holidays. Even now, I still thought about Elián and the case that took an emotional toll on my family, especially my grandparents.

CNN recently aired the documentary “Elián” and I admit that I was very interested to learn more about the boy whose image has been burned into my memory. I remember mourning with my family when the federal government raided his family’s home in Miami. How could they take this boy and send him back to Cuba? I have long held the belief that the U.S. was wrong in sending Elián back to Cuba. I still believe he should have been given a chance to stay in the U.S., but after watching the documentary, I cannot justify keeping him away from his father.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) memorandum in Elián’s case, Juan had every right to claim his child under the Constitution of Cuba Article 37. That passage of the Cuban constitution, according to the United Nations Information Centres, states that being born out of wedlock does not diminish or negate the rights of the child and the parent. “The state guarantees, through adequate legal mean, the determination and recognition of paternity,” reads the Cuban constitution. Elián was born out of wedlock in 1993 but his father still had final say.

INS further states that it is customary for them to assess relationships based on the law of the country of origin when it comes to immigration matters. This means that the U.S. government had to uphold Cuban law, using it to decide who had legal authority to make immigration decisions for Elián. By that law, his great-uncle, Lazaro González, did not have that right.

It was on Jan. 7, 1959, that the U.S. government officially recognized the Castro-led Cuban government. While we didn’t have diplomatic ties with the Cuban government, we still recognized them as a country and, in turn, we recognized their laws. From a purely legal standpoint, it seems that government officials had their hands tied in terms of what to do with the Cuban boy that was the center of an international case.

It is not new information to hear that Cuba had a strong hand in keeping their dissenters quiet. In fact, many of the stories I have heard from Cuban exiles are filled with heartbreaking examples of family members being disappeared or killed because they dissented. We may never know whether or not Juan wanted to bring Elián back or if he was a pawn for the Cuban government to shore up support for the government. Juan might have wanted Elián to be free in the U.S., but the Castro regime was against it. Or Juan could really have believed that Elián should have been sent back. We’ll never know the truth about that.

I know that this opinion is going to be met with some anger from the Cuban-American community. After all, I, like many Cuban-Americans, want a free and just Cuba. That is something we do not have. Sending a child back to that country seems like an atrocious decision, and, for many reasons, it is. Yet, that does not negate the law nor Juan’s rights to raise his child as he sees fit. As I write this, I am scared of what my own family will think about it. However, it is what I believe. I do not agree with how the situation was handled with federal agents raiding the home and pointing a gun at Elián as he hid in a closet. That was wrong on many levels.

I still think it was wrong to send Elián back to Cuba. Sending him back deprived him of a life of freedom and opportunity that the U.S. is supposed to offer all people. Yet, I can’t justify my feelings other than strictly emotional. Who are we to tell a parent, who by all accounts was a good father, that they had no rights to their child?

We are a nation that values the rights of individuals and of parents. Parents make the decisions for their children, from where they live and go to school, to what doctors they visit and what medical procedures they will perform. That’s what made Elián’s case so difficult. On one hand, his mother died trying to get him out of Cuba. On the other hand, his living father was asking for him to be returned to raise him as he saw fit. There’s no justifiable excuse for depriving a parent of their natural right to raise their child. It’s heartbreaking to say, but that’s what I believe.

You can watch the trailer for “Elián” below.


READ: Here’s How Some People Tried To Show The Reality Of Cubans During Cuban Independence Day

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On Father’s Day, Cuba’s Elian Gonzalez announces he’s set to become a dad

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On Father’s Day, Cuba’s Elian Gonzalez announces he’s set to become a dad

Jorge Rey / Getty

Back in 2000, Elian Gonzalez became embroiled in a heated parental custody and immigration controversy that made international headlines. At the height of the dispute, Gonzalez’s paternal relatives had wanted to keep Gonzalez in the United States after his mother Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez had attempted to leave Cuba with him. Brotons Rodríguez had drowned while making her attempt to flee and Gonzalez’s father demanded that his son be brought back to Cuba.

At the time, Gonzales was only 7-years-old. Today’s he’s a 26-years old and a father-to-be.

In a post to his Facebook page, posted on Father’s Day, Gonzalez announced that he will soon be a dad.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Speaking about his future as a father, Gonzales called his own father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez who took him back to Cuba, as his inspiration for being the ideal father. “Soon I will begin to understand what it means to be a father,” Gonzalez wrote on his Facebook page. “But what I know up until now is my father and I hope to do it as half as well as he did with me.”

Speaking to CNN, on Sunday, Gonzalez said he and his fiancée are expecting their daughter to be born this summer

Gonzalez’s custody battle happened twenty years ago but still resonates with today’s political scene.

398283 06: Elian Gonzalez (C) celebrates his eighth birthday during a party December 6, 2001 at his school in Cardenas, 155 kilometers east of Havana, Cuba. Elian was taken in by Miami relatives after being picked up off the Florida coast in November 1999, then returned to Cuba in June 2000 after an eighth month international legal battle. (Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images)

Among Cuban-Americans, Gonzalez remains a poster child of government failures and excessive force. During his time in the United States, protests, demonstrations broke out in the states and Cuba as well. It resulted in a four-month battle that ended in middle-of-the-night Thanksgiving day raid by FBI agents. A photo of the raid, showed American officers holding a crying Gonzalez at gunpoint.

 In the years since his return to Cuba, Gonzalez has been as strong supporter of the Cuban Revolution and graduated from a military academy in 2016 with a degree in industrial engineering.

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Twenty Years Ago The US Sided With Fidel Castro To Send Back Elián Gonzales, Here’s Why His Story Still Matters Today

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Twenty Years Ago The US Sided With Fidel Castro To Send Back Elián Gonzales, Here’s Why His Story Still Matters Today

About 20 years ago, 5-year-old Elián Gonazalez arrived three miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale from Cuba, on a makeshift raft, in search of his relatives in the states and a better life. Gonzalez’s survival through the arduous waters that would drown his mother and a dozen others along the way, might have been the media’s narrative in a different circumstance. 

The 5-year-old would soon become embroiled in an international custody battle. Did Gonzalez belong back in Cuba with his father or in Miami’s Little Havana with his uncle which many believed was his mother’s dying wish? 

The communist leader of Cuba at the time Fidel Castro wanted him back — and although the U.S. government initially placed the boy with his Cuban-exile relatives, they would eventually side with the dictator

Elián Gonzalez arrived in Florida in 1999 over Thanksgiving weekend.

Up until 2017, the United States had a “wet feet, dry feet,” policy with regards to Cuban migrants — all were welcome. The policy from 1966 allowed anyone who entered the United States territorial waters from Cuba, legally or illegally, to reside. It was revised in 1995 by the Clinton administration so that any Cubans retrieved in the territorial waters would be sent back, but if they made it onto dry land they would be allowed to stay. 

Gonzalez was found by South Florida fisherman in 1999 over Thanksgiving weekend. The 5-year-old was welcomed by the anti-communist community of Cuban exiles. The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service placed Gonzalez with his paternal relatives who lived in Miami and wanted to raise him, however, his father in Cuba demanded his son be returned.

 Under the “wet feet, dry feet” policy, Gonzalez would have to petition for asylum because he was discovered before touching dry land. This small detail would cause a six-month, international legal battle and shift the way many Florida Cubans perceive American politics. 

Courts decide to send Gonzalez back to Cuba. 

While Cuban demonstrators and empathetic Americans supported the stay of Gonzalez — the governmental powers that be were building a case that suggested otherwise. A Florida family court granted custody to Gonzalez’s great uncle in Miami. However, INS had the superior authority to decide that his real legal guardian was his father in Cuba. Had the boy’s mother survived, things might have turned out differently. 

On March 21, District Court Judge Kevin Michael Moore of Southern Florida ruled that only a legal guardian can petition for asylum on behalf of a minor. But on April 19, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Gonzalez could stay until his family could file an appeal. When government negotiations failed with the family, more extreme measures were taken to retrieve the boy.

On April 22, 2000, on orders from Attorney General Janet Reno, armed government officials raided Gonzalez’s home with guns and tear gas. A photo showing a crying 5-year-old Gonzalez with a large gun pointed to his face would later win the Pulitzer Prize. 

Gonzalez was safely repatriated back to Cuba.

The Gonzalez decision may have affected the outcome of the 2000 election.

Following the Clinton administration, the 2000 election was a turning point in American politics. Many Cubans felt alienated by the Gonzalez decision, and thus, walked away from the Democratic party altogether. 

“It was humiliating to Cuban-Americans, and the 2000 election was payback,” Miami pollster Sergio Bendixen told the Atlantic in 20001.

Republican George W. Bush won by 537 votes during a messy (and possibly corrupt) recount of the 6 million votes cast in Florida, beating out Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. Known as “el voto castigo,” Gore received only 20 percent of the Cuban vote in Florida, compared to Bill Clinton’s 35 percent in 1996. Thus, 80 percent of Cuban American voters chose Bush over Gore — which should be a lesson to both parties trying to build Latinx coalition. 

Bush would go on to start the endless war in Iraq, utilize Islamophobic rhetoric in the wake of 9/11, trigger one of the worst recessions, and until recently, was considered the worst president in U.S. history. Gore would go on to warn us about climate change decades before the discourse entered the national conversation. 

What has become of Elián Gonzalez today? 

Gonzalez, in his 20s, is now a communist and staunch supporter of the Cuban Revolution. He was welcomed with a celebration upon his deportation. On his seventh birthday, Fidel Castro himself attended his birthday party. 

Whether Gonzalez is on the right side of history is beside the point because the 5-year-old boy could not have become who he is today without instigation by the United States. Communist-sympathizer or not — he was correct about one thing: 

“Just like her [his mother], many others have died attempting to go to the United States. But it’s the US government’s fault,” Gonzalez told CNN in 2013. “Their unjust embargo provokes an internal and critical economic situation in Cuba.”

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