Cuba Culture

Just an ordinary Cuban boy with an extraordinary past

Posted May 16, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

[url=][/url] | Fears for Elian’s future seem unfounded, Herald Correspondent Caroline Overington writes.

Four years ago, Elian Gonzalez’s mother made a desperate attempt to escape her native Cuba for a new life in the United States.
The voyage was doomed. She drowned off Florida, as did most of the people on the illegal craft.

Elian survived, by clinging to an inner tyre tube. On Thanksgiving Day in November 1999, after hours at sea, he was rescued by a fisherman, Donato Dalrymple.

So began one of the most harrowing custody battles in recent history. Elian’s survival captivated the world, but he soon became a political pawn. Cuba’s leader, Fidel Castro, wanted the US to send him back to Cuba, but Elian’s relatives in Miami, who were granted temporary custody, argued that he would be denied a decent life, and his human rights, if he returned.

The debate ended only after 150 federal agents, operating under orders from the Justice Department, stormed Elian’s temporary home in Miami, seized the boy from his great-uncle, and organised his return home with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who had been flown to the US.

Elian still lives in their small home town of Cardenas, 200 kilometres from Havana. It is not a wealthy place. People travel in horse-drawn carts, and many of the homes are crumbling.

Elian’s house is one of the larger ones, but by no means grand. Painted pale blue, it sits at the end of a main street, and anybody can tell you where it is. A green metal fence has been erected to keep tourists away, not that many venture this far off the tourist track. A child’s scooter was leaning against the porch; an old eastern European car sat in the drive.

The Herald went to Cardenas to see how Elian was faring, three years after his dramatic return. When he left the US, his family in Miami protested that he would either become a puppet of Dr Castro’s regime, doomed to spend his life spouting communist propaganda, or else left, like most Cubans, to live in poverty.

Neither appears to have happened. Elian’s father, Juan Miguel, did receive a medal from Dr Castro when he returned to Cuba, and there were many celebrations, but the family has since returned to normal life. Elian goes to the local school. Mr Gonzalez, who has remarried, to Nersy Carmenate, now has a second son, Hianny. He has also returned to his old job, as a barman at a restaurant called Dante in the nearby resort of Valadares. He was there when we visited but declined to see us.

Next stop was a small museum about Elian, established in an old firehouse in Cardenas. The display is neither aggressively anti-American, nor overly triumphant.

From the roof of the museum, you can see Elian’s school. It is painted bright turquoise and, while we were looking at it, a group of children dressed in Cuba’s traditional school uniform, of starched white shirt and blue shorts, poured into the quadrangle, for half-an-hour’s play.

It is not entirely correct to say that Elian’s family has completely retreated from politics. Earlier this year, Mr Gonzalez stood for election in Cardenas, and he is now a member of Cuba’s parliament, which meets about once a year. But his interest is the province he represents, not the battle with America. “He told me Elian has just got a normal life,” our interpreter said. “That’s why they don’t want to talk. It’s better we just leave them alone.”

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