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Posted October 04, 2005 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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In the annals of conflict between Cubans and Americans, there was the Bay of Pigs, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis and, in 1999, there was Elian Gonzalez.

The last time we saw Elian, he was a 6-year-old in the eye of a storm in Miami, and possibly the youngest person ever to become the focus of an international crisis. Now, five years after he returned to Cuba with his father, you will hear Elian’s story from his point of view. 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon reports.

At the age of 5, he survived an incredible sea journey after the boat he was on capsized during a storm. He was then caught up in another storm of sorts when his relatives in Miami tried to keep him with them, while his father wanted him back home in Cuba. During the entire five-month ordeal, everyone had something to say about Elian Gonzalez except Elian himself. He was the silent one, until now.

When we met Elian, now 11, what he seemed to like most about being interviewed was getting a bottle of really cold water and a gizmo in his ear for simultaneous translation.


The soft-spoken kid with the soft brown eyes and carefully gelled hair is in the seventh grade now. He likes math, and says he wants to be a computer scientist. Like the other kids, he rides his bike to school. Unlike them, he is always followed by security.

And there’s another difference. Elian knows Fidel Castro. And Castro knows propaganda. He came to Elian’s graduation from elementary school in July, and said he was proud to have Elian as his friend.

Elian knows that’s something extraordinary for a kid. He says he thinks of Castro “not only as a friend, but also as a father.”

If he had a problem, would Elian call Castro up and tell him about it? “I could,” Elian says.

Elian is back in Cardenas, the coastal town where he was born. He lives in a modest new house with his father, his stepmother and his two young half-brothers.

He likes being with other people, he told us. It’s important to him. “I don’t like being alone. I always like being around others so I can be calm and not remember what happened,” he says.

The bad memories begin with the night his mother and her boyfriend took him down a path and past mangrove trees to a desolate little beach just outside Cardenas. There, a few hours before dawn on Nov. 22, 1999, they were to board a boat and set off for America.

They were among 14 people packed into a 17-foot homemade boat. The only child on board, Elian thought he was going on an adventure.

“They told me we were going fishing and we were going to see my uncles,” Elian says, “and since I was little I didn’t understand very well what that was ó to see my uncles.”

His uncles lived in Miami, about a 30-hour trip in good weather. But after the sun set on their first day at sea, the boat drifted into a storm. Elian says he remembers the moment that the boat turned over. The child was put on top of an inner tube. A few others were clinging to the tube, including his mother, who couldn’t swim.

“I remember it was daytime, and I saw my mother and a friend,” he says. “Then I saw them fighting. No, no I couldn’t do anything. Then I fell asleep and when I opened my eyes, I didn’t see anyone.”

On Thanksgiving morning, three days after Elian left Cuba, Sam Ciancio, a local fisherman, took his cousin on a fishing trip off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. Two miles off shore, they saw an inner tube floating in the water with something on top of it. When they drew closer, they thought it was a hoax. “We seen it looked like a doll was tied to an inner tube. It looked like a doll. It really did,” Ciancio says. “We thought it was a joke.”

Ciancio and his cousin sailed on. But on their return voyage, 30 minutes later, they had another look. “As we approached the inner tube, we seen his hand move,” Ciancio says. “Next thing you know, I’m in the water. He grabbed a hold around my neck like that. And I started screaming ó this kid’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive!”

His mother was not. Her body was never found. But thanks to an inner tube, Elian had survived, drifting 250 miles. Remarkably, he wasn’t in bad shape. After only a day in a hospital, the child was handed over to relatives in Miami.

His great-uncles and a cousin wanted to keep him in Miami. His father wanted him returned to Cuba. So did Fidel Castro.

At the regime’s call, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in Havana, chanting Elian Gonzalez’ name. In Miami, anti-Castro protestors countered by surrounding the house where he and his Miami family lived.

“I thought there was something bad going on, but I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he says now. “They were not telling me what was happening, why they were shouting.”

Elian told us he hated being cooped up in that small house. He missed his school, his friends and his father.

He says that his Miami relatives were telling him “bad things” about his father, and also “telling me to tell him that I did not want to go back to Cuba.” He said he always told them that he wanted to go back.

Delfin Gonzalez, a great-uncle who cared for Elian in Miami, says he won’t believe anything Elian says in Cuba because he is a prisoner there. Delfin also denies that Elian was unhappy in Miami.

But when we asked Elian about the best part of his stay there, he said there was no best part.

So, we asked him what the worst thing was about the time he spent in Miami. “The nights,” he replied.

He says he was having nightmares then, and his uncles “would talk to me about my mother, and it was better not to remind me of that because that tormented me, to be remembering all that. I was very little, and it wasn’t good to be talking about that.”

The ordeal dragged on for five months.

Then it ended in a flash in the early morning hours of April 22, 2000, as armed federal agents stormed the house to take the boy away. His relatives had hidden him in a closet. A camera clicked, and a haunting image was beamed around the world, of a terrified child screaming.

“At that moment I felt afraid because I thought they were going to scold me or do something to me,” he says.

Elian was carried out of the house, and whisked away by a special agent. And his world changed again.

“When they said I was going to see my father, at that moment, then I felt joy that I could get out of that house,” he says.

His father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, was waiting for him in Washington.

“We embraced each other. It was a very emotional moment,” the father says. “They had to help me carry the boy off the plane. I couldn’t even hold him in my arms. It was very overwhelming.”

Elian’s arrival in Cuba seemed to have been designed for a conquering hero, albeit one who was missing his two front teeth. Little Elian embarked on a two-month tour of Cuba, all recorded by Castro’s personal cameraman Roberto Chile, who helped us on our story too.

Then, aside from a festive seventh birthday party at his school, Elian was kept out of the public eye in Cuba until this past April. On the fifth anniversary of the raid in Miami, Elian gave a patriotic speech in front of the cameras and in the presence of Castro.

Che Guevara was yesterday, Elian Gonzalez is today. And that’s precisely how Cuba is playing him. In what’s called the Museum of Ideas in Cardenas, he has already been cast in bronze as the revolutionary hero preparing to throw Superman ó in Cuba a symbol of imperialism ó onto the rubbish pile of history.

Ramon Sanchez, a leader of the demonstrations in Miami five years ago, today says, in effect, “I told you so.”

“He is being brainwashed by the Cuban regime. When you see a child talking in the same exact way that the dictator has talked for 46 years, you know he has been indoctrinated,” Sanchez says.

In Miami, the house where he lived with his relatives has been turned into another kind of museum. Here, Elian is portrayed not as a revolutionary but as a religious icon.

His clothes are in the closet. His stuffed animals are on the bed. The spot where he was taken by marshals is marked with a cross. There’s been no attempt to disguise who he is meant to resemble.

Delfin Gonzalez looks after the museum. He still insists Elian did not want to go back to Cuba.

We asked Elian if he ever wants to see his relatives in Miami again. He says he does. “Despite everything they did ó the way they did it was wrong ó they are my family; they are my uncles.”

People say, half jokingly, that Elian may have a future in Cuban politics. His father is now a member of Cuba’s National Assembly.

Elian was elected president of his student body last year. Not a bad start. He admits he would like to be a member of the National Assembly, like his dad.

Elian knows that his destiny has been a strange one, and that he will spend the rest of his life trying to figure it out.

With all this, it’s easy to forget that the boy who was the centerpiece in a historic tug of war is at heart an 11-year-old kid. So, of course, we had to ask him if he has a girlfriend. He says he does, but he won’t tell us her name. It’s a secret.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on October 04, 2005 by Charlie Dunk with 17 total posts

    I think that Elian is 12 now. He is a month older than my eldest boy who will be 12 next month. Either that or my memory is playing big tricks.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on August 25, 2006 by Felix Farr

    thats so sad and unfair!!

  3. Follow up post #3 added on July 02, 2007 by kat

    2007, I still think of how Americans failed this boy and democrats sent him back to communism. If he was a ‘prisoner’ in the house in Miami it was because of Reno and Clinton stifling the child’s freedom. The father had tried to leave Cuba earlier-now this boy will be a well-paid puppet. And stupid elitist self-promoting liberals don’t get-they make money on the backs of others, they walk on other’s freedoms-they just don’t value America. President Clinton and Reno and the media or the Methodist church never screamed and yelled to return Mexican or Asian kids to their fathers. What phonies.

  4. Follow up post #4 added on July 22, 2007 by who cares

    Elian who? Clinton was the best president ever!

  5. Follow up post #5 added on March 19, 2008 by Stephanie Cruz

    It is a disgrace that the Americans failed again. Like they did in Giron in 1961.
    This boy’s freedom was in their hands and they just disposed of it like a pathetic little toy. Now look at Elian, mimicking what ever the comunist government of Cuba, and his own father has told him to say. The poor boy can not express his true feelings about what has happend to him, and how it has affected him.
    We all know that if he would have been allowed a chance to stay in Miami, to stay in the United States of America, he would have had his own freedom and most important, the ability to speak freely.

  6. Follow up post #6 added on September 03, 2009 by cutie gal

    thats so intresting about him it’s just sad how his life was

  7. Follow up post #7 added on September 04, 2009 by Marek

    What’s truly sad is the ignorance of some commenters. Do you truly believe that it is impossible for Elián to be a happy kid growing up in Cuba?  In March I spent a month in Havana doing research. A good friend was recuperating from surgery, so I took his son to Tae Kwon Do practice three evenings during the week. The 30 or so children who gathered in a basketball court in Vedado for instruction were happy, playful, well-fed, healthy… their parents likewise.  No-one was a bag of bones crying for a foreigner to rescue them from the evil commis. Cuban society is rich, fulfilling, active…. Children in Cuba grow up with as much “indoctrination” as they receive in any US society…. just because the US disagrees with the nature of that system, does not render it invalid.  Look up “ethnocentric” and then have a good think, eh?

  8. Follow up post #8 added on November 18, 2009 by lgirl 97

    that was a mess am so mad at that

  9. Follow up post #9 added on November 18, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    Hey Marek, I have the same problem it makes me sad so much ignorance of foreigners that travel to Cuba and cannot see that behind the smiles of the kids playing and their parents watching, there is lot of unhappiness derivate from not knowing where their lives are going.

    Cubans are generally good parents, and would fight for in order to properly feed our kids, but is that your idea of modern society where you have to fight in order to feed your children.

    Why next time you to go Cuba, spend a week only consuming what an average Cuban can buy, without any supplies from the hard currency market etc. I bet you would get a different idea altogether.

  10. Follow up post #10 added on November 18, 2009 by Marek with 49 total posts

    Yeyo, as I stated, I have friends (not “acquaintances”, not “a nice waiter I met in a resort”), but friends from nearly two decades of at least yearly visits to Cuba, and as stated in other threads, with whom I’ve spent a great deal of time - living in their home, watching their children grow, seeing the trials and tribulations of their lives.

    Cuban children are not deprived. They are given first priority. Ideologically-biased slander of the cuban reality only diminishes what in some cases are valid criticisms. But by behaving like wing-nuts, counter-revolutionaries such as yourself serve only to make yourselves irrelevant in any serious discussion.

  11. Follow up post #11 added on November 18, 2009 by paul

    Children in Cuba grow up with as much “indoctrination” as they receive in any US society


  12. Follow up post #12 added on November 19, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    Hi Marek,
    I recall that you mention that one of your friends was the former Minister of Education, is that you idea of average Cuban?

    You should go the country side to see by yourself how lots and lots of children are not only deprived but also poorly feed, do not have appropriate clothing and shoes and the houses where they live are simply miserable. The parents of those kids trusted the “revolution” allowing everybody to have equal opportunities. Does everybody in Cuba have equal opportunities today?

    Now, I would like to refute your indications that behaving like what you call a wing-nut, counter-revolutionary like myself serves only to make myself irrelevant in any serious discussion.

    Firstly let me tell you that repeating your lies about the “revolution” does not make you more relevant. Secondly I consider myself revolutionary, keep in mind that revolution is something that changes, and believe me I’m continually changing my opinions and points of view depending on the evolution of the society. Actually at one point I was a good revolutionary (as per your standards) but I realized that everything around me was simply a big fat lie.

    Now, “nobodies” like you go to Cuba and transmit all sorts of lies and simply contribute to the propaganda of the regime and the oppression of my people. What do you feel? that with all this old European Socialism nostalgia you can shadow the fact that one day, like it or not, the Cuban people would wake up and throw away the Castros once and for all.

    That day you probably would stop going to Cuba because you would have to start paying for that Mojito.

  13. Follow up post #13 added on November 21, 2009 by Marek

    Yeyo: No, I don’t know the current (or any former) Minister of Education. I have made the acquaintance of some past diplomatic staff at their embassy in Ottawa and the Toronto consulate. But you’re talking about 2 or 3 out of dozens. Selective highlighting. Many of my friends and colleagues are professors at the university of Havana; some work in development in Santiago de Cuba; others are technicians and workers at the Joven Clubs throughout the island. I’ve been in small communities and larger cities. I am not the type of person who hangs out on resorts. On my last visit to Cuba in May of this year I actually managed to dip my toes in the water at the less-than-sandy beach at Nautico. I am not a tourist, dude.

    And for the umpteenth time, I don’t like mojitos.

  14. Follow up post #14 added on November 21, 2009 by Marek

    And for a reasoned, evidence-based perspective (as opposed to feelings and ideology), I offer the following:

    “Cuba could serve as model for protection of children’s rights: UN official news  
    21 November 2009

    Cuba is among the countries that have best implemented the proposals of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) representative in Cuba.

    The world could learn a lot from Cuba’s experience on the protection of the rights of the child, Jose Juan Ortiz said on Friday in Havana.”


  15. Follow up post #15 added on November 21, 2009 by Yeyo with 411 total posts

    If you are not a tourist, then try to be impartial and change your discourse.

    If you are a “professor” doing anything (other than losing your time) in Cuba, you should learn the reality and do not simply say what you are told to say.

    Maybe you should learn what is commonly know that all the personnel that works at the Cuban Embassies and Consulates, most of them are agents of the security system and others have to play and report in order to keep their posts. Anybody that does or says anything that the security deems “not appropriate” is immediately sack out. Obviusly your friends have says the lies so many times that they now feel are true.

    In my opinion it is not entirely their fault the fact that they are completely brainwashed. It takes a lot of intelligence and desire to fight the system and learn the true. However when somebody comes from a free country like Canada and start playing the Cuban Government game, that is simply repulsive.
    You know the reality, the freedoms and the openness of the Canadian System but still continue promoting those nonsense ideas of the goodness of the Castro Government.

  16. Follow up post #16 added on December 18, 2009 by JEW

    Marek, you fool!  It’s just like a white-liberal pinko to make freedom a color thing.
    The Cuban-American community in Miami, founded and comprised of those who dared escape Fidel’s plantation have words for you, if you dared to listen. 

    Love of liberty is not ethno-centric.  That’s Fidel’s line because he has no other retort. 

    Why does he not allow his people to leave?  Why did Elian’s mom have to give her life to get away?  Why did Elian’s dad “try” to get away but “fail?”  What, were the KKK at the port in Miami saying, “No spics allowed?”

    I’m not sure what blinders you are wearing, but those of us with serious questions still get no answers from you and “the enlightened” class of benevolent bolsheviks.

    I reiterate. . . push this crap of yours on the Cubans in Miami, in person, if you dare.

  17. Follow up post #17 added on December 18, 2009 by Marek with 49 total posts

    I don’t dare “push this crap” in Miami. You kidding me? Those fanatics firebomb their own people when they dare to go against the “evil Castro” line (http://www.radiohc.cu/heroes/ingles/cronologia/cronologia6.htm)

    I’m not a communist. I’m certainly left-of-centre. I believe “liberty” must come with responsibilities, that markets are fallible (really, do I need to point that out to anyone after the mess of the last couple of years?).

    I am a Canadian. I did not grow up indoctrinated by anti-communist rhetoric and fanaticism that washed over the minds of Americans. As a Canadian, my government does not restrict my freedom to travel, so I have had many years of direct experience in Cuba, far from the beaches, doing something that apparently some of you are incapable of: actual scientific social research.

    The world is not black-and-white. Those of you with that form of blindness do nothing to advance the cause of a better life for Cubans and better relations between Cuba and the USA.

    JEW, I’m tired of banging my head against the wall of ideologues who are unable to understand the balsero issue. I presently live in Mexico, and in this country I see what true poverty is. I see what it really means to be “escaping” from a horrible life, as hundreds of thousands of migrants attempt to cross into the USA every year.  If you are unable to understand the push-pull scenario of absolute poverty in Latin America combined with the lure of the “land of milk and honey” fantasy, then it’s impossible for anyone to bring you into reality.

  18. Follow up post #18 added on December 20, 2009 by paul

    “I am a Canadian. I did not grow up indoctrinated by anti-communist rhetoric and fanaticism that washed over the minds of Americans. As a Canadian, my government does not restrict my freedom to travel, so I have had many years of direct experience in Cuba, far from the beaches, doing something that apparently some of you are incapable of: actual scientific social research.”

    Well you are certainly indoctrinated in your own way. Apparently the school system in your country has taught you to see Cuba in this rosy hue. Where do social democrats flock to? usually into education, where they get to rot young minds with biased left wing interpretations of the world.

    Your fanatic a$$ kissing of Cuban socialism is hilarious, and sorry turbo, you aren’t doing “actual social research”. You are warping the reality of Cuba with your fake credibility in your field. You rehash the info that the Cuban gov’t allows you to have, and pass that off as “actual scientific social research”.

    Enjoy those rights to travel as a Canadian, rights that Cubans without the right level of obedience do not have. Your rosy depiction of fascist and authoritarian Cuba is the enemy of the people, as you are a straight up lackey for the Cuban government.


























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