Posted April 17 2005
CáRDENAS, Cuba · Elián González says he wants to be a gymnast when he grows up. But his grandfather, Juan González Sr., knows Elián’s future career choices are as variable as any normal preteen’s and could change next month.
“I want him to be a good man, to do good deeds, not do anything he will regret. Everything else is all right,” he said, sitting in his home in the coastal town of Cárdenas under a large photograph of a very young Elián.
At age 11, the boy whose bitter custody battle stands as a symbol of the Cold War conflict between Cuban-Americans and Cuba has been saddled with high expectations.
Five years ago this month, armed federal agents stormed into the home of Elián’s Miami relatives and scooped him up in a lightning-fast, predawn raid that crushed the hopes of Cuban-American exiles. Within hours Elián was reunited with his father, Juan Miguel González. Two months later, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the boy’s Miami relatives to keep him in the United States, Elián and his father boarded a chartered Learjet and returned to Cuba.
Today, Elián and his family live in a roomy blue home with red trim on Cárdenas’ main street, 80 miles east of Havana. It has a tidy, fenced front yard, a porch swing and a menagerie of pets, including parakeets, fish, dogs and a rabbit.
The town’s people have embraced Elián as a local celebrity. But there are few signs of the boy’s moment in the international spotlight, when he famously survived a shipwreck at age 5 and floated across the Florida Straits for two days in an inner tube after his mother and 10 others drowned.
“Sometimes it seems like a dream, something that should not have happened,” González Sr. said, recalling the shipwreck and the ensuing battle over custody against his siblings in Miami. “It’s not easy for us to forget it; neither is it for the [Cuban] people. I think despite people’s political positions, they identified with our situation.”
Today, Elián is a model student, favoring math and Spanish classes. He has been chosen leader of his sixth-grade class and will begin middle school this fall.
He takes karate lessons and plays pingpong. Despite having lots of toys at home, one of his favorite games is fishing for tadpoles in the gutter in front of his grandparents’ home on Cossio Street, near the rocky beach.
He is devoted to his two young half-brothers and keeps a photo of his mother, Elizabet Broton, by his bed.
“He refers to her as his beautiful mama,” said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the former head of the National Council of Churches, who is based in New York.
“He strikes me as a happy boy, a very healthy boy,” said Campbell, who helped negotiate Elián’s grandmothers’ trip to the United States and has visited the family in Cárdenas several times. “There’s no question he’s famous, but I think there’s also a normalcy about it. There’s only so much you can say. He’s a normal little boy.”
“Normal” is the word most often used by Elián’s family in Cuba and his American supporters to describe his life.
His great aunt, Haydee González, 61, said Elián is a quiet boy, reserved like his mother was, who has adjusted to the unusual circumstances of his young life.
“He has adapted,” she said. “He has continued to be a very normal child. His relations with his other little friends are the same, without egotism.
“We imagine if it had been another boy he might have had trauma. But he has overcome it well and continues to do well in school.”
His grandfather said Elián initially saw a psychiatrist to help him cope with the stress of his ordeal, but the family no longer thinks that is necessary.
Still, for a boy known around the world by his first name, “normal” is a relative term. Several plainclothes security officers are stationed in front of Elián’s home to keep strangers from getting too close, and a museum in his hometown is partly dedicated to Cuba’s campaign to “save” him.
Housed in a former fire station, the museum includes a small assortment of mementos such as the T-shirt worn by fisherman Sam Ciancio on the day he rescued Elián off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, a cross Campbell gave Elián’s great-grandmother, a Cuban flag formerly displayed at Elián’s grandparent’s home and schoolbooks from his classmates’ trip to Washington.
Large photos in the museum recall the government-organized rallies, which frequently disrupted work and school schedules, paralyzed traffic and led some Cubans to claim Elián fatigue. Back then it seemed Cuba’s little cause celebre was everywhere. At the rallies, thousands of Cubans, often led by President Fidel Castro, wore identical white “Save Elián” T-shirts and waved small Cuban flags, chanting slogans for his “liberation.” Massive marches were broadcast live on television, and posters of the somber boy standing behind a chain-link fence were displayed across the island.
Museum guide Yaremis Fraga said Elián visits the museum every week with his classmates to use its computer center.
“Everybody loves him,” Fraga, 23, said. “Everyone followed this very closely. You think of him like a son.”
Indeed, Castro takes a special interest in his schooling. Elián’s father, who was elected to Cuba’s National Assembly in 2003, tries to see Castro whenever the family is in Havana. González is often seen in the front row of government-organized rallies, sometimes accompanied by a bored-looking Elián.
“We almost always talk [with Castro] about the family,” González Sr., a retired police officer, said. “How [Elián’s] studies are going, sports. He [Castro] is always interested in how Elián is doing in school.”
Cárdenas has changed little since it became ground zero in Cuba’s so-called “battle of ideas,” an ideological campaign begun after Elián’s return, which is meant to encourage revolutionary ideals in the youth. It continues to be a sleepy town, sustained largely by its proximity to the resort haven of Varadero, where Elián’s father, like many other residents, works in the tourism industry.
He is a waiter and occasional tourist attraction at the Ristorante Dante Italian restaurant in a lushly landscaped Varadero park, where visitors sometimes snap photos with him. He is also pursuing a university degree in tourism, González Sr. said.
Still, Juan Miguel González has always been uncomfortable in the glare of the media. A written interview request for this article was declined.
Though Elián’s family in Cuba seems to have put the ordeal comfortably behind them, one wound has not healed: The painful division between the González clan in Cárdenas and their siblings in Miami. That is not likely to change soon.
“They don’t call me, they don’t talk to me. One always suffers from that,” Elián’s great-aunt Iraida González, 71, said of her five brothers and sisters in Miami. “It’s not like before when the family was together.”
González Sr. said he would like to repair the rift, but wants his siblings in Miami to “understand that what they did had no sense.”
“They need to recognize they did a great harm to the whole family,” González Sr. said. “If they don’t, that will be their sentence.”
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at vmbauza1 @yahoo.com