March 24, 2023

Elián González, the Cuban ‘rafter’ whose face went around the world

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(CNN Spanish) — Elián González’s face went around the world in 1999 after he was found alone in the Straits of Florida and a fierce custody battle broke out that pitted his father, a supporter of the Cuban regime, and other opposition relatives who lived in Miami. .

González, then six years old, became the face of a struggle with political overtones and reminiscences of the Cold War. Now, more than two decades later, he is a reference among the young people who have openly supported the Castro regime.

This is his story.

Clinging to a tire in Florida waters

On Thanksgiving Day 1999, Elián González, then a toddler, was found clinging to a tire in the Florida Straits.

His mother, Elizabeth, and nine other people who were part of a clandestine voyage had drowned after the boat they were on capsized at sea while trying to make their way from Cuba to the United States.

His survival seemed miraculous, and distant relatives in Miami, supported by the anti-Castro exile community, vowed to keep him in the United States.

In Cuba, meanwhile, Elián’s father, Juan Miguel, began fighting to bring the boy home. He was supported by Fidel Castro himself, who led massive demonstrations on the island demanding their return.

The case became a new flash point in the already simmering dispute between supporters and opponents of Castro’s revolution.

A supporter of Elián González's family in Miami sits next to a sign in front of the house where Elián lived in Miami on April 15, 2000. The sign reads: "Sending Elián to Cuba for his own 'well-being' is a criminal act of hypocrisy".  (Credit: Joe Raedle/NEWSMAKERS/Getty Images)

A supporter of Elián González’s family in Miami sits next to a sign in front of the house where Elián lived in Miami April 15, 2000. The sign reads: ‘Sending Elián to Cuba for his own ‘well-being’ is a criminal act of hypocrisy”. (Credit: Joe Raedle/NEWSMAKERS/Getty Images)

Elián’s relatives in Miami argued that if the boy returned to Cuba, he would become a trophy for Castro in his long feud with the United States.

The photo of Elián González that traveled the world

As the two sides fought the high-profile case in court, US immigration officials decided to place Elián in the custody of his father, who had traveled to the country to press for his son’s return.

His relatives in Miami refused to hand him over, and then during a nightly raid, armed federal agents broke into his uncle’s home and seized the boy.

The moment was captured by photographer Alan Díaz, who showed the boy’s terror looking at an armed United States agent, in an image that traveled the world and won a Pulitzer Prize.

The photograph that Alan Díaz took and that traveled the world.

Riots broke out in Miami when members of the Cuban-American community reacted with anger after the boy was taken away by federal agents.

Elián was reunited with his father and after further legal proceedings, which ended with the United States Supreme Court rejecting the efforts of relatives in Miami to recover him, father and son flew back to Cuba.

A massive ‘welcome home’

Elián González and his paternal grandfather, Juan González, upon the boy's arrival at the José Martí airport on June 28, 2000 in Havana.  (Credit: Liborio Noval/AFP/Getty Images)

Elián González and his paternal grandfather, Juan González, upon the boy’s arrival at the José Martí airport on June 28, 2000 in Havana. (Credit: Liborio Noval/AFP/Getty Images)

The Government of Cuba celebrated Elian’s return with a massive demonstration.

For the next few years, he was surrounded by government bodyguards and he later said that they became some of his best friends during his childhood.

González’s father, a waiter who had received invitations to defect while in the United States, was appointed to the island’s National Assembly but later resigned without any official explanation.

Despite promises that he would return to his old life, Elián González never stayed out of the public spotlight for long.

Fidel Castro talks with Elián González on July 14, 2001 in Cárdenas, Cuba, during a political meeting to inaugurate the "Museum to the Battle of Ideas".  (Credit: Adalberto Roque/ AFP/ Getty Images)

Fidel Castro talks with Elián González on July 14, 2001 in Cárdenas, Cuba, during a political meeting to inaugurate the “Museum of the Battle of Ideas.” (Credit: Adalberto Roque/ AFP/ Getty Images)

At the boy’s seventh birthday party, the guest of honor was Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The images of Elián and Castro celebrating were first shown on the island’s state television and then broadcast around the world, to a public still fascinated by the case of the so-called Cuban “little rafter.”

“I do not profess any religion, but if I did, my God would be Fidel Castro. It is like a ship that knew how to lead its crew on the right path,” González said in an interview with Cuban state media in 2013.

González used to say that Castro was like a second father to him.

“I saw the monster from within”

In another interview in 2013, González said he remembers little of the disastrous trip to the United States or the tense months he lived with his relatives in Miami’s Little Havana.

His mother was “manipulated” by her boyfriend to leave Cuba, he said, and had he stayed in Miami, he would have been forced to become “an actor” for the media.

“I saw the monster from the inside,” he said at the time, quoting the poet José Martí.

In a rare interview with CNN in 2017, González said he would like to reconcile with his relatives in Miami, but also made it clear that he planned to continue to openly support the government that brought him home. “Living here is a debt that I owe to the Cuban people,” González said. “It’s what I will always work and fight for.”

The then president Raúl Castro talks with Elián González on June 30, 2010 in a church in Havana, during the celebration of the tenth anniversary of his return from Miami.  (Credit: Adalberto Roque/ AFP/ Getty Images)

The then president Raúl Castro talks with Elián González on June 30, 2010 in a church in Havana, during the celebration of the tenth anniversary of his return from Miami. (Credit: Adalberto Roque/ AFP/ Getty Images)

Your first trip off the island

In 2013, González made her first trip outside of Cuba since returning from the United States, as part of a 200-member Cuban delegation to a youth conference in Ecuador.

During the conference, González criticized US policies that he said motivated Cubans like his mother to make the dangerous sea voyage to Florida.

“Like her, many others have died trying to travel to the United States. However, it is the fault of the United States government,” she told CNN in an interview. “Their unjust embargo of her causes a critical internal economic situation in Cuba.”

Candidate for the National Assembly

This year, Elián González was nominated to serve in the island’s National Assembly, according to reports in the newspaper Granma. The newspaper referred to González, now 29, as a “representative of the most dignified of Cuban youth.”

González’s run nearly secures his seat in the 470-seat National Assembly that meets several times a year to discuss bills, which are generally voted unanimously for approval.

Under Cuban law, municipal assemblies nominate a single candidate for the National Assembly, which Cubans can then ratify or vote against.

With reporting from CNN’s Patrick Oppmann.



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