‘My god would be Fidel’: Here are 5 must-see moments from CNN’s new Elián González documentary
A makeshift raft took off from the shores of Cuba in 2000. In it was a small family, including a young boy named Elián González. For those of us barely conscious of the political landscape at that time, the story reads like something seen on the shores of Greece with inflatable boats bursting with Syrian refugees desperate for safety.
Capsized boats littered the tall waves between the two countries. Bodies floated, swollen with bloat from bacteria. At that stage in decomposition, the bloating of a dead Cuban man seeking asylum would have been so extensive that the eyes were forced from his sockets and the tongue from his mouth. These would be some of the things travelers saw while clinging to whatever vessel they managed to find to make the trip. Elián González was only five-years-old at the time.
A new CNN documentary, ELIÁN, that will air Thursday evening details González’s journey — giving us a look the harrowing story of the way he made it to the United States and the complete disaster that followed.
Here’s a look at five of the most revealing moments in the documentary:
1. The description of what González endured is absolutely horrifying.
The family prepared for a voyage to a new world where they could be escape conflict, be with family and get a shot at the American Dream. In a small aluminium boat, González, his mother and her boyfriend set sail for a new life. Along the way, however, something went terribly wrong. The boat began to take on water. The family moved González to an inner tube as they tried to bail water out with nilon bags. A storm overtook them and the boy was alone, floating in the shark-infested waters between Florida and Cuba. He said he was protected by a school of dolphins that floated with him.
Speaking to ABC’s “Good Morning America” then-anchor Diane Sawyer, the boy drew a picture of big waves and a long stick figure floating on them.
“Me, I was sinking,” he said in a tiny voice. He later said that he thought that she probably drowned, but that he thought that his mother was somehow “lost in Miami somewhere.”
When he was spotted by fishermen on Thanksgiving Day, it was unclear how long it had been since he had food and water.
“Look at it, man, is this a sick joke?” Sam Ciancio asked his cousin as the two approached González’s inner tube. “We thought it was a doll tied to an inner tube. We thought it was like a joke, you know.”
2. It was all about family drama.
González’s parents divorced when he was very young but still remained friends and remained close. His father explained that they were more like brother and sister. The families, however, were split over Cuban politics. While his father stayed behind in Cuba as an ally of Former Cuban President Fidel Castro, some in his family left for America.
His mother risked her life to take her son to the United States. Her family fought to fulfill her wishes, but at the same time, they were sticking it to Castro. His father, Juan Miguel González, was an ally to the regime and he wanted his son back. Castro saw an opportunity to use the story to continue the ongoing fight between the U.S. and Cuba. So, what began as a family fight over politics became an international incident.
3. The controversy was one big political mess.
The Cuban communities in Florida were made up of those who escaped from Castro’s revolution and takeover in the 1950s. They fought back against creating a dictatorship under his regime and when they left their homes they still planned to fight. As the years ticked by, those who fled found friends in the Republican Party as the two shared a mutual foe. Powerful party leaders donated money to organizations that continued the crusade against Castro’s ideology and communism.
Florida’s substantial electoral votes made every piece and part of the state important. President Ronald Reagan was a huge advocate for the Cuban refugees as was his Vice President George H.W. Bush. People like then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) understood the politics of the Miami areas known as “Little Havana,” so when his brother ran for president the story of González presented an opportunity.
While President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department was trying to navigate what the law around the issue was, Vice President Al Gore was running for president against Bush. Following the law meant returning the boy to his next of kin, which meant, for the first time the American government was on the same side as Cuba. It gave Clinton’s political opposition enough ammunition that they could proclaim Clinton a communist and Castro sympathizer.
“I can say that Janet Reno and Bill Clinton never had any intention of resolving this matter,” one community leader told the press outside of the González home the day the young boy was taken back to his father. “They wanted confrontation, they wanted this episode. This is a dark chapter in the history of this country.”
While Gore disagreed publicly with the administration, he was ultimately forced to shoulder the fact that the Justice Department concluded that González belonged with his father. Signs popped up all over Little Havana for Bush and a sign outside of the González home read in Spanish: “Remember Elián: Vote Republican.”
The election in Florida was so close that the Supreme Court demanded the recount cease and proclaimed Bush the winner, despite the fact that Gore garnered more votes in the state than his opponent. No one will know how the González case impacted the vote count in Miami in 2000, but it was a huge issue for those who didn’t want to return González to Cuba.
Castro was using the González family to fight the United States. Knowing the laws would ultimately require the boy be returned to Cuba to his next of kin, he played up the drama as the evil American empire kidnapping a Cuban child.
Meanwhile, the Miami family refused to meet with Juan Miguel on neutral ground and refused to travel to Washington, D.C. to meet with the the father or the government representatives. The story ended once the Justice Department was forced to go into the house and get the boy to return him. Not exactly the best public relations for them.
3. There wasn’t a 24-hour news cycle — but one was created to cover this.
While cable news was certainly going strong with CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in the mid 1990s, you didn’t see reporters camped out the way you do today. One freelance AP reporter revealed that he was told by his editor staking out González and his family was his new job. Some were even paid as much as $500 each day to stand in a closed-off portion of the street in front of the home and take photos and video of González and his family.
It ultimately turned González into a prop. Former Justice Department spokesperson Carole Florman said that they would have the boy outside playing with an American flag at 11 p.m. at night
“Trotting out the child like they did — then you’re acting shocked and surprised that it did,” said . “They wanted a media blitz and we gave it to them.”
4. After 17 years, Elián González says that he understands what happened and why.
In an interview with the documentary crew, González, now 23 years old, talked about his cousin Marisleysis González, who he said doesn’t deserve his anger. He knows he was being used as a prop but that Marisleysis loved him and cared for him. At the time she was just 21 years old.
“She tried to do what she saw her family doing,” he told CNN. “And I think she tried to give me the love I was missing then. I think about it now, Marisleysis was just a girl.”
The emotional toll on her was great and she collapsed after an interview with Katie Couric.
“I was under a lot of stress. I wasn’t getting enough sleep,” she explained. “Sometimes I would just pass out.”
The family was a nice and generous family, so people would walk in and out of the house that many didn’t even know. Marisleysis said that people would come in her room randomly while she was trying to relax.
5. Today, Elián González remembers the federal agents storming in to “rescue” him from the Miami relatives.
Armed with automatic weapons and tear gas, federal agents broke through the door of the Miami home where González had been staying. The agents were dressed in green, which made the former Cubans fear it was Castro’s agents coming to kill them. The agents told those in the house to get on the ground or they’d be shot. The fisherman who first pulled González from the Gulf waters was given the boy once again, and they hid in a closet until another agent found them.
“My strongest memories are from the day they rescued me,” he told CNN. “When we got in the van, she said, ‘I’m a friend of your father’s. I’m taking you to him.’ That’s where I began to calm down. They called my dad and put me on the line…”My father and I try never to talk about it. We stay with the good, which is that it united the Cuban people, and the Cuban people made me their son.”
While the boy was being reunited with his father, his cousin, whom he sometimes called his mom, was sobbing and saying they were made “to feel like criminals.”
Protests broke out in the city with American flags burned and police in riot gear pepper-spraying those who stood with the Miami González family. Thousands marched in the streets.
González said that things returned to normal where his father was simply Juan Miguel and he was just Elián. However, the family was visited by President Castro.
Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, described Castro’s emotional investment as beyond policy. When Elián returned home, she said that he became almost like one of Castro’s own children. Throughout his life, Castro continued to use the incident as a success in Cuba’s revolution.
“I would never aspire to have my name at the heights of Fidel’s or Che [Guevara]’s or Raúl [Castro]’s,” González told CNN. “But I did earn a little place in the hearts of the Cuban people. I have to make my father proud, the Cuban people, the American people, Fidel, and the revolution which brought me home. That’s the psychological burden from that whole process. I don’t practice any religion. I haven’t studied any religion. But if I did, of course, my god would be Fidel. To me, there’s no greater person.”
He described himself as nothing more than the son of a humble working father that mobilized an entire country.
The positive outcome of the crisis was a broader conversation about the American embargo put in place over 50 years previously. As Fidel Castro approached the end of his life and a new generation of political leaders brought those who never knew why the embargo was in place to begin with. The hard-lined community members that advocated for the continued war against Cuba softened over the years as a younger and different generation of Cuban descendants became active in Cuban pride.
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” former President Barack Obama said. “Even if we lifted the embargo, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba. I believe in the Cuban people.”
Watch the trailer below: