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Whatever Happened to Elián?

Bill Meyer: Most people today know little of what became of that little frightened child who was snatched from the grips of his Miami relatives to be returned to his family in Cuba.

The rescue of Elián González, the 5-year-old Cuban boy found floating near-death in a life jacket off the coast of Miami in 1999, was one of the biggest stories of the decade, and its impact is still being felt today. However, once the boy was returned to Cuba, the story quickly dropped from the news, with Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno becoming enemies of the Miami Cubans. Most people today know little of what became of that little frightened child who was snatched from the grips of his Miami relatives to be returned to his family in Cuba.

A new documentary produced by the prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney bears the simple title, Elián, and is a poignant and profound journey through the troubled waters of US-Cuban relations and the dramatic events that followed Elián from the time his mother chose to take him with her on a raft to America. Elián González became a major symbol of US-Cuban relations, pitting the rabid Miami anti-Castroites, against Fidel and the entire country of Cuba who were fighting to return the boy to his father. He became ‘a boy caught between two worlds.’

But with Obama’s recent visit to the island causing a temporary thaw in relations, Gibney and the directors took advantage and gained unprecedented access to Elian and his family. What they discovered was a very soft-spoken unassuming but confident young man living a normal and active life. However, much to their obvious unspoken dismay, Elián has grown up to be a committed communist in total sync with his loving father who both respect Fidel and became close friends with him before he died.

While Elián was held in Miami against his father’s wishes, he gained the love and support of the local anti-Castro Cubans, including his cousin Maurilesis who developed a close bond to the young troubled child she could identify with. The over half century economic blockade of the island and resultant ideological differences have created the tragic displacement and splitting of families, many coming to America under extreme conditions. There is much passion in the Cuban community, and Elián’s Cuban father, Miguel still tears up when hearing of his son’s ordeals. It’s his brother’s family in Miami who wouldn’t return his son, and his divorced wife is the one who, without the father’s consent, chose to risk their son’s life to get to America.

The movie’s strength and attraction is in showing what happened to the young man once he left the shores of America. Most of the American footage was seen endless times during the real ordeal. But with easy access to the Miami Cubans who played major roles in this drama, in addition to leading political figures and media personalities, the filmmakers were able to present both sides of the story in a fairly objective manner. This is a story of family and the challenges of reconciliation; between divided relatives and two nations working towards healing old wounds. But time has changed the Cuban American community. They were out of sync back then, with an overwhelming 75% of Americans wanting the boy returned to Cuba. They’ve gotten old, died off, and the younger Cuban-American generation and growing numbers of other Americans want to normalize relations.

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Not surprisingly though, the documentary goes only as far as expected in America – not recognizing that Cuba is a sovereign nation rightfully choosing its own social system, and failing to accept the many accomplishments of Fidel and socialism. The anti-communist bias is prevalent throughout, constantly using the term ‘Castro regime’ and hoping the younger generation will help lead Cuba to a ‘democratic’ style. In a discussion following the screening, Irish co-director Ross McDonnell and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tim Golden seemed slightly at odds about their political analysis of Cuba, with McDonnell sounding more appeasing and fending off accusations that Elian might be ‘brainwashed.’ Whereas Golden suggested that although Elián appeared ‘a true believer,’ he was living in a bubble! There was also a suggestion that Elian’s militancy was a little out of step with the younger generation in Cuba! (hoping again for ‘regime change’).


However, both directors felt this ‘young communist’ was extremely articulate and understood his country’s history and the causes of the revolution, and could possibly run for office in the near future! They said it took awhile to get access to Elián but then relations warmed and he became easily available. The directors also mentioned both Elián and his father seemed to enjoy the film and felt it was balanced and fair.


Elián said he would have liked to see more pictures of him and his father together, stressing the importance his father has played in his life. I would say that he is not featured enough in the movie, with most video focussing on the events in Miami. But even that little bit makes this an important and entertaining documentary about one of the most famous 5 year old boys in history.

bill meyer

Bill Meyer