10 years later, the raid that sent him back to Cuba still is an open wound
Elian Gonzalez dominated headlines in South Florida and across the nation from November 1999 to April 2000.
Now, little is heard of the boy and who he has become.
Elian became the center of a heated custody feud between Cuba and the United States a decade ago. After having been found floating alone in an inner tube near Fort Lauderdale, the 5-year-old boy was sent to live with his cousin and uncle in Little Havana.
During the journey, he witnessed the death of his mother and 10 others in the Florida Straits after their homemade raft fell apart.
Six months later, he was forcibly taken from his American home at 5:15 a.m. and reunited with his father, who took him to Cuba.
He returned to the media spotlight in June 2008 when, at 14, he joined Cuba’s Young Communists with 18,000 others. This was perceived as evidence that Cuban officials successfully convinced the Cuban youth that a communist lifestyle is key to happiness and prosperity. But others argue that Elian might not have had an option.
Cuban youths “don’t have much of a choice in joining the Communist Party,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a campaign strategist and research analyst for Bendixen and Associates.
Jack Cashill, an investigative reporter on American government and politics who wrote that the Elian incident cost Al Gore the presidency in 2000, agrees.
“If your name is Elian Gonzalez, you don’t have much choice about anything,” Cashill said in a telephone interview.
Not everyone in the Communist Party is a loyal follower of the Castro brothers Fidel and Raul. Joining the party clearly has its benefits; by putting on a façade, Cubans may better their own situation in the totalitarian state and live a life that lacks restrictions.
Ana Laura Bermudez, 18, experienced this firsthand while growing up in Cuba.
“As seniority in the party mounts up, you can get a car, or a better house, and definitely way more money,” she said. “You can get (away with) doing things a regular person may have been arrested for.”
Joe Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, pointed out that Cuban youths live under a great deal of government control. In many cases, party membership can be the difference between getting a college degree and remaining uneducated.
Still, pledging loyalty to the party doesn’t guarantee a good life. Cuba’s government has a complicated, tangled system of personal connections and “who-knows-who.”
Annabel Escandon, 17, who spent four of her childhood years in Cuba, said, “We had friends who were communists who lived just as badly as us.”
Junior Ramos, 18, who arrived from Cuba only seven months ago, believes it is unlikely that Elian joined Cuba’s Young Communists seeking luxuries.
“(Elian) is a king over there. He does whatever he wants. If he wanted to be president, he could be president,” Ramos said in a phone interview conducted in Spanish.
In the same way he was not seeking luxuries, Elian probably wasn’t seeking connections, either. Ramos said the Cuban government adores Elian, but “the public doesn’t care about those things.”
The Cuban government justified Elian’s pre-dawn capture and return to Cuba in April 2000 by saying it wanted to create a normal life for the boy.
Ironically, Elian is frequently seen sitting next to Fidel Castro at political events.
Escandon said Cuban kids may idolize Elian because he’s been made by the Cuban government into “the portrait of who they (all) should be.”
She went on to say, “He’s brainwashed…they’re not going to let him get out.”
Delfin Gonzalez, Elian’s great-uncle, hopes otherwise.
In October 2001, he bought Elian’s home in Little Havana and converted it into a museum with hope Elian could visit one day.
“We’ll see if, God willing, (the Cuban government) gives him the opportunity and the chance so he may come here because I know he wants to come.
“He wants to return. The thing is he’s under too much pressure,” he said.
Still, Delfin conceded Elian is not likely to return. He said the Castro brothers know that “if they let him return (to America), they may lose control.”
“When you expose people to freedom and human rights…they have a change of heart,” he said.
Cashill supports that idea.
“When the first (cracks) in the wall appear,” he said, “the wall will crumble.”