Dateline travels to Cuba to find out what happened to the boy who once dominated headlines
By Keith Morrison
Of all the strange, discordant moments that have soured the Cuban family feud, surely the most traumatic was the day the Elian custody battle was sorted out at the point of a gun. And yet, after all those thousands of hours of breathless coverage on cable TV, the furious angst, after all that, there was silence. There was barely a word about Elian. This story is about the search for Elian. Who knew that finding him would pull us into a family squabble that’s getting even nastier?
Elian Gonzales became the disputed prize in the U.S.-Cuban battle right at Thanksgiving 1999, the survivor of that ill-fated escape from Cuba in the leaky motorboat. Before his Miami relatives, a great uncle and cousin, could claim him for a life of freedom in America, he had watched his own mother drown.
It was just about this time, late June in 2000, that the bitter struggle ended and the boy flew back to the Western world’s only remaining communist state in the tight grip of his father, Juan Miguel, to a tumultuous victory party in Castro’s Havana.
When we told the story in the spring of 2000, Elian was the face of Havana, the most famous 6-year-old boy in the world.
Havana has changed little in those four years, but for one significant thing. Where once images of Elian were everywhere, they have now simply disappeared. Even the building on which his billboard was painted has been torn down. Elian came home alright but, where is he? What happened to that little boy?
The answer, says president of the Cuban parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, lies with Elian’s father, Juan Miguel, and it goes back to the very night of that welcome home celebration, when Juan Miguel asked him to leave the party and go for a stroll.
Ricardo Alarcon: “Nobody else was there, and he took a breath profoundly and said, ‘No more marshals, my God, at last.’ He said, ‘Let’s go and have a couple of beers.’”
And with that, Alarcon says, Juan Miguel took Elian and went back to Cardenas, his hometown, to leave behind all the politics and publicity of that seven-month custody battle. Alarcon wanted us to meet the father and his famous son, to let us see how the boy was getting along. Even Castro said to go ahead.
And then we hit a brick wall, named Juan Miguel Gonzales. Nobody from American TV, he said, will see me or my son, no matter what Castro says. And that was that—unless, by showing up at the door, we could change some minds.
And so on a brilliant, sunny morning not long ago we boarded the daily charter from Miami to Havana. For almost 25 years now, since Castro first allowed them, these flights have brought Cuban exiles home to visit the families they left behind. We’ve decided, while figuring out how to get to Elian, to have a look around, in the company of a long lost son of Cuba named Pedro Irigonegaray.
He was 12 on a day 43 years ago, when his family divided. His parents went to Kansas with him, the aunts who until then had helped raise him, remained in Havana. It’s the aunts he’s coming back to see.
Pedro turns out to be, now, a very successful civil rights lawyer. He says he is grateful to have grown up in America, away from a country away from a country where free press doesn’t exist, a place where criticizing Castro’s regime can land you in jail, as it did last year, when over 70 of Castro’s most vocal opponents were rounded up and sentenced to an average of 20 years in prison—an act condemned by the U.S. and many of Cuba’s strongest allies.
Pedro Irigonegaray: “It makes me ill to know that today not far from where we are, there are good people arrested simply because they spoke their mind. I’m not here supporting the dictatorship of Fidel Castro.”
Though it’s highly unlikely anybody on the plane is supportive of Castro, just the same, it lands to applause and tears.
On a tour of his past, Pedro is flooded with memories. On top of El Moro, the Havana port lighthouse, he remembers a vibrant, shining city, crumbling now.
Irigonegaray: “Havana is broken. But what a magnificent city, isn’t it?”
The old neighborhood is just as it was. Pedro mounts the wall he once climbed as a schoolboy to spy on the exotic women at the famous Tropicana.
Irigonegaray: “See, we used to come out here, and then get one of our buddies to give us a leg up, like we did here.”
And when he finally finds the boyhood home he left that awful day in 1961, he is welcomed by the same two families that have occupied the place ever since, and who are today celebrating a birthday. Come anytime, they tell him. It’s your home, too.
Though we can see clearly the hard day-to-day reality, there is something infectious about the place, and when Pedro joins a street band for an impromptu performance it is clear he is smitten, broken city or not.
A well-hidden boy
And as we watch Pedro we wonder, what about young Elian? Is he happy to be back? Or is his life the misery some Miami Cubans predicted four years ago. What did he find at the end of that motorcade?
The longer we stay in Havana, the clearer it becomes, Elian Gonzales is one well-hidden boy, hidden from the foreign media, at least. Our roadblock is his father. He knows we’re in the country and it’s clear he’s avoiding us. So we decide to try the direct approach. We’ll travel to his turf.
Cardenas is, quite literally, a horse and buggy town, a two hour drive down the Cuban coast from Havana. It’s poor and provincial, the town from which Elian Gonzales and his mother left on that fateful trip to Miami, and to which, we know, the boy has returned. But now there is not a sign of him.
That is, except for a room in the local museum where it’s obvious he has not been forgotten. There, amid photos and artifacts of the six month long custody battle, is a statue of the boy, striking a revolutionary pose, enshrined in plaster and bronze.
There’s the school he went to, and to which he has returned, we’re told, but they won’t let us film in there. And when we arrive at the little house where we know Elian and his family lived four years ago, they’re gone and the door locked.
Pretty soon it’s apparent that friends and neighbors, the whole town in fact, has erected a kind of wall of protection, to keep the inquisitive world media from finding him.
We return to Havana to ponder our next move, where we find that the kind of political battle that once swirled around young Elian, has just sideswiped Pedro Irigonegaray, the Cuban-American lawyer here to visit his aunts. In fact, it’s hit every Cuban-American who has family on the island.
Conflict continues over politics and family
Every morning for some years this has been the scene at Havana International Airport, Cuban-Americans arriving here from Miami, New York, Los Angeles, on their one visit permitted each year to see relatives, bring them money and gifts to help them survive. But no more. Now the number of trips they are permitted, the amount of money they may bring has been drastically cut back, and in many cases eliminated all together. Is it another crack down by Castro’s repressive regime? No. This is a policy made in America. It’s the latest salvo in a 43 year battle to force Fidel Castro from power.
After a decade of tentative openings, educational visits, expanded food trade and so on, the Bush administration has clamped down on travel to the island and especially on Cuban-Americans’ visits there.
The U.S. thinking goes something like this: Each time a Cuban-American brings or sends money to relatives, that money, almost $1 billion last year, boosts the island’s economy and helps Castro continue his dictatorship. So beginning July 2004, Cuban-Americans may only visit direct family members, and then only once every three years. If their relatives are uncles or cousins or, say, aunts, as in Pedro’s case, those Cuban-Americans will never be allowed to return or send money ever.
That means this is the only trip for Pedro,
Irigonegaray: “I may never see them alive again.”
So when he arrives at their home in what once was an upscale Havana neighborhood, determined to make every moment count. The aunts are well aware that this may be his last visit, and so they’ve looked through the house to find the baseball bat Pedro played with when he was 10. As they pore over old family albums, the mood is a deep melancholy. Just like Elian, Pedro is caught in the middle of an ugly international divorce.
Keith Morrison: “You know, under the new rules of the United States, Pedro Will not be considered part of your family.”
Aunt: “He’s our nephew. He has the same blood as her and mine. The family is only one. The family.”
Morrison: “I don’t want to be melodramatic here, but when you say good-bye to these beautiful people it’ll be for the last time.”
Irigonegaray: “It’s not melodramatic. It’s unfortunately the painful reality, except that this time it’s my government. Because I am first an American citizen. And my own country is now telling me these folks do not exist. What is the sense of that?”
Morrison: “If you’re told that you can’t be a part of these women’s lives anymore.”
Irigonegaray: “Nobody can tell me that. Nobody can tell me that. Period.”
The past 43 years of tough U.S. economic restrictions haven’t sent Castro packing, and Pedro contends these new ones won’t either. But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, who helped formulate the new regulations, disagrees.
Roger Noriega: “It’s a tragedy that Castro has survived, that his dictatorship has survived. But we have a policy that for the first time will help Cubans bring an end to the dictatorship.”
Morrison: “Does it make any sense at all? That the country that says it’s a beacon of democracy would be telling its citizens where they can and cannot go. and how often they may do it and how long they may stay and how much money they may take. Is that democratic policy?”
Noriega: “It is a policy that’s intended to help bring democracy in Cuba, which is where it is sorely needed.
Morrison: “Does that seem fair to the people? To the individuals?”
Noriega: “To the individuals it may not seem fair. But the problem of the Cuba situation is not that families are divided. The problem is that half the family lives in a dictatorship.”