The Saga of Elián Gonzalez: A Lost Boy Who Was Finally Found

The new doc ‘Elián,’ premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, examines the story of the boy torn between two countries and the power struggle that ensued (plus an odd Trump cameo).

Alan Diaz/Reuters

On Thanksgiving morning, 1999, a Cuban boy was found in the Florida Straits, alone on an inner tube. Elián Gonzalez, then only five years old, never stood a chance at a normal life. His story splayed across fault lines, pushing up against the volatile relationship between the Cuban and American governments—not to mention between Castro supporters and Cuban-Americans. The fact that Gonzalez was so ignorant to the histories and conflicts that pushed him and his mother across the water only served to make him more of a media spectacle. Elián, a new documentary, tells the story of the boy who was pulled at from all sides—told that he belonged not only to his father in Cuba and his family in Miami, but to the Cuban people and the American viewing public at large. It’s a film about the many injustices endured by a 5-year-old who had just outlived his mother; pains inflicted not just by a foreign dictator or a SWAT team of federal agents, but by family members and concerned citizens who were genuinely trying to help. It’s also about the dangers of politicizing a child or twisting a tragedy to your own advantage—risky fare for even the most well-meaning documentary.

Thankfully, Elián more or less manages to learn its own lessons, with illuminating “unprecedented access” to Gonzalez himself.

If circumstances were slightly different—if Gonzalez wasn’t a minor, perhaps, or if his mother had survived—Elián would have been just another nameless face in a wave of Cubans seeking refuge in the United States. Unlike past migratory surges, these would-be American citizens were forced to decide between staying in Castro’s Cuba or braving the journey in makeshift rafts. Elián’s mother Elizabeth Gonzalez was not the first to lose her life during the passage, and she certainly wouldn’t be the last. While Elián’s ability to survive on that inner tube made him a morning TV miracle, his fame would have likely been short-lived if it wasn’t for another round of circumstances beyond his control. Through news clips and interviews with American officials, Cuban community leaders, Gonzalez family members, and Elián himself, Elián walks us through the story’s evolution from local news to anti-Castro propaganda fodder to subject of national debate.

Gonzalez’s case boils down to a particularly ugly custody battle, albeit with Cold War undertones and some very famous players. Elián’s father, Juan Miguel, came from a family of party members, and was comfortable with his life in Cuba—so comfortable that he quickly asked his extended family to send Elián back home. Meanwhile, the Miami uncles wished to honor the wishes of Elián’s mother: The American dream that she had died trying to provide for her child. At multiple points in the documentary, accusations or intimations of brainwashing fly back and forth across the Cuban-American divide. The Miami relatives believe that Juan Miguel faced pressure from Castro; otherwise, they ask why wouldn’t he just come to America to be with the boy himself? Still, as much as Elián and his father appear to be strategic pawns for Fidel Castro, who rallies the Cuban people against American interventionism in the name of Elián, Castro isn’t the only player attempting to use Gonzalez to his advantage. In America, Cuban-American organizations disseminate images of Elián as an indictment of Castro. Neighbors and newscasters urge Elián to play with American flags for photo-ops, and politicians say the name Elián Gonzalez as if it’s a passcode that will grant them access to the crucial Cuban-American vote.

Naturally, once the story is elevated to a battle between nations, not to mention diametrically opposed ideologies and methods of governance, Gonzalez’s wishes and needs are swallowed up in the noise of the larger narrative. Everywhere he goes Elián, who describes himself as shy, is met with cheers, photographers, and renditions of the national anthem. His new home becomes a hub for politicians and news anchors, looking to jolt their poll numbers or boost their ratings. Politics aside, Elián could hold its own as a commentary on the making of a media phenomenon, centered around one of the first victims of the proto-24/7 news cycle.

Acknowledging that an unbiased documentary is a mythological creature, Elián is extremely fair to all involved parties. One could even argue that the film is overly sympathetic, in light of the myriad manipulations that appear to have occurred on both sides of the Florida Straits. While the doc features a host of accusations against Castro, emphasizing the theory that he used Elián and Gonzalez to rally the Cuban people—and may have even deliberately extended the conflict—the absence of background on daily life under Castro is conspicuous. While there are mentions of restricted freedoms and economic hardships, we don’t delve into the specific circumstances that drove Elizabeth Gonzalez to steal away with her son on a rickety boat, without even confiding in his father (according to the film, while Elizabeth and Juan Miguel were separated at the time, they remained close).

Of course, if this was truly Elián’s movie, it would tell a very different story—and American figures like Janet Reno or the pillars of the Cuban community in Miami might not be depicted as even-handedly, or come across so favorably. After all, if there’s one takeaway from Elián’s calm and precise sound bites, it’s that he is not a huge fan of his 6-month home. While Gonzalez doesn’t appear to have any ill-will towards his relatives, Elián says that he and his father try never to talk about his ordeal in America, preferring to speak about the “good things”—like the fact that his story galvanized the Cuban people, or that his return brought them joy. Having remained close with the Cuban leader until his death, Gonzalez explains that, while he isn’t religious, “If I were, my God would be Castro.”

While the Miami Gonzalez relatives seem to believe that words have been put in Elián’s mouth, it’s easy to spot the potential seeds of Gonzalez’s seemingly anti-American politics—the hordes of opportunistic attention-seekers that flooded his family’s Miami home, the cameras and microphones constantly shoved in his face, and the gun that a federal agent pointed at him the night they broke in and took him away.

Of course, watching Elián in 2017, there’s a natural urge to draw comparisons or lessons between now and then. Certainly, there are parallels between Elián Gonzalez and Omran Daqneesh, the bloody, dust-covered Syrian boy whose vacant stare was projected unto an international stage. And, lest we forget, our own president was motivated to retaliate against the Assad regime because of images of the “beautiful babies” who were attacked. All of these cases speak to the capacities and failures of our shared humanity: the miraculous fact that a single story can bring a nation to a halt, as well as our unfortunate tendency to fixate on a single image while glossing over the systemic issues behind the photograph.

In fact, Elián examines our current president on two separate occasions. The first is a clip of Trump speaking to the Cuban American National Foundation in 1999—a powerful organization to whom politicians would pander with hardline anti-Castro policy proposals. In the footage, Trump insists on the importance of the Cuban embargo in “toppling” Castro, saying, “And I’m going to be down here and I’m going to watch you win, and I don’t know in what capacity…I’ll either be the greatest developer in the country, or the greatest president that you’ve had in a long time.”

Trump rears his orange head again later in the documentary, as headlines flash across the screen that warn of a breakdown in Cuba-U.S. relations. Asked to comment on the new president, Elián appears nonplussed, insisting that the Cuban people “have withstood worse than what a new president might bring.”

One of the most interesting portions of Elián meditates on the possible consequences of Elián’s forced removal and repatriation. A particularly startling theory proposes that outcry over the case drove Cuban-American voters to the Republican party, thus contributing to Bush’s win in the infamous Florida recount. One interviewee suggests that, “If the Elián case had been handled better we might not have had the Iraq war.” Imagine one five-year-old refugee, unwittingly triggering an avalanche of over a million.

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While the Gonzalez case contains many lessons for journalists, politicians, and civilians, Elián’s chief takeaway appears to be a meditation on human autonomy in a world where politics and history are constantly shaping us, both consciously and unconsciously. Audience members might leave the film convinced that Gonzalez was Castro’s personal trophy—a symbol of a triumph for his revolution; a brainwashed pawn. But Elián himself has heard these accusations, and is unbothered by them. He loves Castro, and he has nothing to prove: “In the end, Cuba is an island,” he explains, “It is 90 miles away. If I wanted to, I could take a boat and go.” But he stays—he loves his family, he cherished his relationship with Castro, and he is loyal to his homeland. Much like the Miami branch of Elián’s family, viewers might struggle to comprehend that Gonzalez is genuinely glad to have been raised in Cuba, not America. But in a post-Trump world, there is infinite value in challenging our entrenched beliefs and experimenting with radical tolerance—a genuine passion for the personal freedoms that we purport to fight for. Gonzalez’s politics and his choices may challenge the notion of American exceptionalism, but they also mark the reclamation of a personal autonomy that was stolen from Elián on American shores. Now, Gonzalez has more control over his own story than he ever has before. And miraculously enough, it seems to have a happy ending.