González, Elián, Case

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GONZÁLEZ, ELIÁN, CASE. On Thanksgiving Day 1999, two men fishing off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, spotted a small boy floating in the ocean, supported by an inner tube. The boy was taken to a hospital, where he recovered. His mother and a dozen others had drowned in an attempt to escape Cuba and reach the United States. Elián's relatives in Miami—the closest being a great-uncle—sought to keep the boy with them. They did this in the face of Cuban demands that he be returned, and despite the likelihood that the U.S. family court system would try to reunite him with his father, Juan Miguel—even though the father was a Fidel Castro loyalist. Hundreds of sympathizers kept vigil at the relative's small house in Little Havana, forming prayer circles, and damning Attorney General Janet Reno for maintaining that the family courts should rule on the case.

At first, opinion among Cuban Americans was mixed. José Basulto, a Bay of Pigs veteran and leader of the prominent anti-Castro Brothers to the Rescue, initially said he thought the boy should be reunited with his father. Some younger Cuban Americans—self-described as Generation Ñ—argued that the issue should be settled in family court. Once Castro began using the case as a pretext for a series of anti-American tirades, however, the lines were drawn: the community's economically and politically powerful militant right wing used support for Elián's right to remain in Miami as a litmus test, and most Cuban Americans either publicly backed the "Keep Elián" position or kept silent.

Anonymous donors gave Elián's relatives a car, trips to Disneyland, and a lavish assortment of toys and clothes for the bewildered boy. He was sent to a private school, one of a chain owned by a hard-line anti-Castroite, but when reporters and photographers hounded his every move, he had to be taken from school and kept at his great-uncle's home. The intense media presence in Miami encouraged demonstrations staged by community leaders, who beseeched the crowds to defend Elián at all costs. On one occasion, a large group of demonstrators attacked a radio talk show host from Portland, Oregon, for wearing a T-shirt that read, "Send the Boy Home."

On Holy Saturday, 22 April 2000, Attorney General Reno ordered in a special team of agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who stormed the house around 5:00 a.m. Most were dressed in military uniforms and carried weapons. Despite negative publicity created by a journalist's photograph of the terrorized boy facing an angry, armed soldier, outside of Miami most Americans strongly supported reuniting the boy with his father, who had come to the United States to wait out the judicial process. Even after Elián was seized, media coverage, especially in Miami, continued its feeding frenzy, although the hundreds of photographers and reporters camped day and night across the street from Elián's house began to dwindle away. When Elián and his father, stepmother, and stepbrother returned to Cuba after being turned over by the FBI, Castro made the boy into a hero and had hundreds of thousands of Cuban schoolchildren rally in mass support of the little boy. He then settled the family in the quiet city of Cárdenas.


Domínguez, Jorge. "Your Friend, Fidel." Harvard Magazine 102, no. 6 (July–August 2000): 35–39.

Levine, Robert M. Secret Missions to Cuba: Fidel Castro, Bernardo Benes, and Cuban Miami. New York: St. Martin's and Pal-grave, 2001.

Robert M.Levine

See alsoCuba, Relations with ; Cuban Americans .

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González, Elián, Case