Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Elian Gonzalez and the "Real Cuba" of Miami: Visions of Identity, Exceptionality, and Divinity

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

Elian Gonzalez and the "Real Cuba" of Miami: Visions of Identity, Exceptionality, and Divinity

Article excerpt

Introduction

On Thursday, 25 November 1999, Thanksgiving Day, two fishermen rescued a six-year-old boy, Elián González, from an inner tube floating just three miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The boy was one of only three survivors of a group of fourteen Cubans who had embarked for the United States four days earlier on a sixteen-foot, homemade motorized craft. After only a day at sea, the boat capsized. The boy's mother soon figured among the dead. Lacerated by the stinging tentacles of jellyfish and delirious from severe dehydration, a young man and woman who also survived the trip were found less than forty miles away from Elián by another pair of fishermen. Their story, by now typical of the tens of thousands of Cubans who crossed the Florida straits from Cuba in the 1990s, merited only cursory media attention.1

By contrast, the cute, pale, and comparatively healthy boy quickly found himself at the vortex of a different but equally harrowing ordeal. His mother's plan to take him to the United States had not only ended in tragedy, but it remained unknown to his father, Juan Miguel González, in Cuba, until his own relatives notified him from Miami. Although Elian's exiled relatives had initially intended to send the boy home to his father and few if any disputed the idea, both the González family's plan and the public opinion of Miami's nearly one million Cubans suddenly reversed course after Fidel Castro demanded that the boy be returned within seventy-two hours.2 As Lisandro Pérez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University explained to reporters for the PBS series, Frontline: "It didn't become just a question of where should the child live or where should the child go. It became now a question of 'Fidel wants this,' so [the Cuban exile community in Miami] say, 'Well, if he wants the child, he can't have him.' And it became very quickly, therefore, a confrontation that fed into a forty-year-old struggle between Cuban exiles in Miami and Fidel Castro."3

In the coming months, the ensuing custody battle over Elián between the González family in Cuba and the González family in Miami became a political priority of international and domestic proportions for the Clinton Administration, catapulting the small child to the heights of fame. News of Elian's plight began to compete for media space with such celebrities as Britney Spears and Cate Blanche« in U.S. magazines as diverse as Vogue, Time, People, and the New York Times Magazine.4 Meanwhile, his Miami relatives received a new car, trips to Disney World, and an extensive collection of toys from anonymous donors.5 In one week alone, the Elián González Defense Trust Fund collected nearly a quarter of a million dollars for legal expenses.6 Organized exile groups, every elected official of Cuban descent in the municipal and city government of Miami-Dade County, and the exile-controlled media of South Florida launched attacks not just on Cuba, but on the U.S. federal government and the U.S. public itself for supporting Elian's return. The U.S. Secret Service investigated death threats to both President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno for their policy of trying to return Elián home. Meanwhile, crowds of 200 to 300 exiles staged twenty-four-hour vigils in Little Havana and demonized Reno publicly, despite her bafflingly obsequious efforts at appeasement.7 Dissenters who took the view that Elián should not stay in the United States suffered rebuke and reprisals for harboring Communist sympathies.8

At the same time, in Cuba, the state mobilized hundreds of thousands of citizens for highly orchestrated demonstrations, leaving the national economy, already burdened by the collapse of Soviet-subsidized socialism and the recent transition to capitalism, at a standstill. The Communist state also saturated its own media with constant coverage of Elián.9 Many who stood at the margins of exile politics could not fathom the reasons behind the political importance of the custody case: for close to eight months, it was as if the small stretch of ocean separating Cuba from Miami had become a distorted mirror in which both sides parodied the other, each hoping to demonstrate the greater moral force behind their respective arguments about which version of Cuba was truly free and how the youngest generation of Cubans deserved to live. …

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