Elian Gonzalez at 21: Why Sending Him Back To Cuba Was Always the Right Thing To Do

(Photo: Adalberto Roque/AFP Getty Images)

It was right around 5 a.m. on Saturday, April the 22nd, 2000 when our pagers went off simultaneously. My wife and I, both producers at the NBC outlet in Miami, shot up in bed with the understanding that only one thing could have awakened the two of us at the same time on what was supposed to be a quiet Easter weekend: “They took him,” I said.

The “him” was Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy who had been at the center of a bitter international custody fight since being brought ashore in South Florida on Thanksgiving of the previous year — and the “they” was the U.S. government, which had slowly tired of the surreal dog and pony show Miami was descending into in an effort to keep Elian in America and stick a giant collective thumb in the eye of Fidel Castro. This was always coming: the moment when the U.S. decided it had just about had enough of this bullshit and would move to reunite Elian and his Cuban father, by force if necessary. Juan Miguel Gonzalez had already arrived in the States but was forced to wait until the drama with his son played itself out. Elian was in the custody of his distant relatives in Little Havana, family his mother was apparently trying to get to when she died on a raft at sea, leaving the boy to eventually be rescued alone. But now he’d been taken by federal agents in a surprise raid — and the shockwaves were already starting to spread across Miami. My wife and I both bounded out of bed toward the closet to throw something on to wear for what was almost certainly going to be a very long day at work.

Elian Gonzalez is now 21-years-old and for the first time since returning to Cuba with his father in 2000 he’s speaking publicly about the possibility of coming back to visit the U.S. In an interview with ABC News, he says he wants to “give (his) love to the American people” and thank those who stood by him during the protracted custody fight. “I could personally thank those people who helped us, who were there by our side. Because we’re so grateful for what they did,” he says. As for the relatives who fought to keep him in the U.S., he says he harbors no ill will toward them and is open to a reconciliation, even though he’s glad he was given back to his father and was allowed to grow up in Cuba. He claims to remember how hard his mother struggled to keep him alive while the two were at sea and her desire for him to grow up in the United States, as well as the moment captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph seen worldwide, when a federal agent armed with an HK MP5 machine gun burst into his temporary bedroom and took him from the arms of the man who had found him at sea during a fishing trip.

It’s interesting to imagine what the response would be in Miami were Elian to actually return. It’s true that many of the hardest of hardliners have died, but Miami’s Cuban exile community still harbors plenty of the resentment that led it to fight tooth and nail to keep Elian, as a matter of principle, in the first place. It’s difficult to describe for people who weren’t there what Miami was like during the Five Months of Elian, even though much of the insanity was broadcast on national television. In an effort to deprive Fidel of his “prize,” Miami’s elected officials actually created their own foreign policy, at one point refusing to cooperate with the federal government of which the city was nominally under the purview. When Miami’s mayor said he’d personally hold President Bill Clinton responsible if Elian’s repatriation led to violence in the streets, Reuters wondered, “(has) the strange city finally shed the last pretense of obedience to the rule of law?” Things were so out-of-control that the controversy over Elian began breaking down into an ethnic battle, with Cuban-American advocacy groups practicing “civil disobedience” by bringing traffic on I-95 to a crawl and Anglos throwing bananas at city hall as a way of calling Miami a banana republic for its refusal to crack down on all the lawlessness.

Those ethnic divisions extended well into the NBC Miami newsroom. After a point, in much the same way that the fight over OJ Simpson’s guilt divided L.A. newsrooms along racial lines, our entire staff was ordered not to discuss Elian beyond the basic coverage we were providing. It was a tall order given that some of our on-air personalities were editorializing under the cover of being called “contributors” rather than correspondents. At one point, I threatened to quit rather than allow one particular contributor to use my show as a platform for his constant filibustering in favor of keeping Elian from returning to his father. It felt as if we, as a station, were simply trying to ride the wave of local public opinion rather than doing what was right and remaining objective. As the dissenters among us were often reminded, we had to “respect the passion” of the Cuban exile community — many members of which worked within our newsroom — but I found this to be anathema to our mission as journalists. Our job was to report the news, not to take sides.

Since leaving TV news in the late 2000s, I’ve revisited a lot of the stories I covered directly or which occupied a good amount of time and space within my day-to-day life in a newsroom. The benefit of time and personal growth gives you the chance to reconsider how you felt about a certain story and how you’d feel were you to cover the same event now. I did time immersed in a lot of very big topics and issues, but for some reason the battle over Elian Gonzalez is one of those things I keep going back to again and again. I say this because now, much more than then, my feelings on the matter are direct and the logic at the center of the case appears bulletproof to me. At the time, I simply saw it as a microcosm of everything that happened in South Florida concerning the Cuban-American community: the exiles despised Castro to the point of madness and would’ve turned any chance to one-up him into a shooting war if necessary, while 90 miles south of Key West, in Cuba, Castro was ready to do anything to make it appear that he still held some kind of standing in the world when the truth was he could barely keep the lights on across his island nation.

Maybe it was the birth of my daughter almost seven years ago, but now, as the the father of a young girl, I can’t imagine having to fight against a group of people with no personal attachment to my child and no stake in the matter other than political for the right to be with her. It’s infuriating in ways I can’t properly describe to try to wrap my head around the fact that for five long months a handful of distant relatives, even more opportunistic hangers-on, and an entire city of arrogant lawmakers and the outraged masses they pandered to — people only looking to score a scalp against their sworn enemy — fought to keep a child away from his father. What’s more, looking back on the intraoffice tension over the Elian story, with things getting so bad that all of us were warned not to even talk about the controversy for fear shouting matches would break out, it shocks me to think that some of my coworkers who were parents themselves wanted to see Elian separated from his own parent — the only parent he had left. Long-standing, all-consuming hatreds were somehow more important than the bond between a father and his child. It’s difficult to fathom the thinking behind this. It’s impossible to process that kind of mindless rage.

In 2000, my issue with the behavior of many in Miami, particularly its city government, had to do with the complete lack of anything approaching an acceptance of the laws of the land. One of the reasons the Cuban-American community has traditionally been such a strident Republican voting bloc is its inherent embrace of arch-conservatism. Miami’s stand against the wishes of the feds merely set the stage for anti-government posturing to come on the right. But once again, removing those political concerns what you were left with was a father who desperately wanted to be reunited with his son and who had to run a gauntlet in a foreign country to make that happen. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to despise Castro and just as many arguments for why Elian Gonzalez would have a better life here in the United States, but the fact remains that when you stand against the reunion of a boy and his parent you’re not on the moral high ground. I’m not sure I really understood that at the time, but I certainly understand it now. There are simply some things more important than your political grudges.

The fact that Elian wants to return to the U.S. to, among other things, visit museums in Washington DC and get on Facebook shows that despite the hero’s life he’s lived in Cuba he still doesn’t have access to what he would have had he stayed here. The recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations — which it should be noted has enraged the hardliners still kicking around in Miami — may make it so that his dreams of coming to the U.S. for a visit come true, but it should never be said that the wrong thing was done in sending Elian back to Cuba with his father. More than ever before, it’s clear that the right decision was made in April of 2000 even if it was controversial and even if it appeared heavy-handed at the time. The fight over Elian would have dragged on for months without direct action, as there was no way the boy’s relatives would’ve relinquished the child and no way their supporters in the exile community would have handed over the stand-in for their decades-long fight against Castro. There was only one right-thing-to-do and that was put the boy back in the hands of his father. Period.

In the end, it all turned out the way it should have, even if a good number of people weren’t happy about it. As for the lasting scars, well, maybe those will become obvious if 21-year-old Elian really does get his wish.

Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever. 

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