Elián González and the Cuban crisis

Ten years after six-year-old Elián González sparked an international crisis between the US and Cuba, Ed Vulliamy of London’s Guardian newspaper returns to Little Havana to chart the story of a family tug of war that made international headlines. Here are excerpts from his lengthy report, with a link to the full article below.

In Little Havana, the popular mythology around Elián González’s survival was that the Divine hand had directed dolphins to protect him from sharks and guide his tyre-raft to safety.

But mystical faith was just one of many forces that gathered around Elián González. The battle fought between the child’s father back in Cuba, who was supported by Fidel Castro, and his grandfather’s brothers in Miami, who were backed by the powerful exiled half of the nation, became a diplomatic tempest. His eventual return to Cuba was a resounding victory for Fidel Castro. A decade on, it is clear that the battle for Elián marked the defining moment in half a century of a Cuban people bitterly divided; the end of 40 years of headstrong obduracy on behalf of the exiles towards their lost homeland. Covering the story for this paper, I wrote days before the raid, in April 2000, that “history will record the bookends of America’s longest-running international drama, starting with a nuclear stand-off between John F Kennedy and Fidel Castro, and ending with a big row over a little boy – the tug of war for six-year-old Elián González between two people of the same nation divided across the Straits of Florida”.

. . .

Elián’s return to Cuba cut deeper than Castro’s immediate victory; it transformed and moderated the mindset of the Miami Cubans in a way that would profoundly affect the future of their homeland. The threat of a Cuban civil war, which had dominated relations across the straits for four decades, evaporated after Elián González. Miami’s Cuban leadership took a hard look at itself. The loss of Elián was a watershed moment: he cancelled the war that might have followed Castro’s eventual death. “After the pain of being rejected by one’s family – Cuba – there was the pain of being rejected by our foster family, America,” says Raul Rodriguez, Miami’s leading architect, a Cuban exile and heir to the Partagás tobacco company were it not for Castro’s revolution. “We became more tolerant; thought more about who we were, as Cubans, with families in Cuba, like Elián himself.”

. . .

Delfin González is a puckish man and tougher than he looks. He is now the only member of the family who talks freely about the days of the tug of war over Elián and their aftermath. “Lázaro left for West Miami,” he says, “though he sometimes comes back. He’s working for the city bus service.” Marisleysis, who suffered fits of depression during her surrogate motherhood of Elián, “opened a beauty parlour – what she always wanted, and married a police officer from Miami Beach. She’s had a baby of her own now. She doesn’t talk about it any more, and her husband certainly doesn’t.” There was a third brother, Manuel, who all along urged that the boy should return to his father. He was ostracised by the family, despite severe health problems, and, says Delfin, “left Miami”.

Delfin was different to the others – more complicated than he appeared during the turmoil of those days – as becomes clear during my visits to his house last week. He had been a dissident against Castro in the early 1960s. “I’ve spent my time in jail – 10 years in Isla de Pinos, the hardest,” he says. “They called me a terrorist but my weapons were words.” Formerly a docker, Delfin left Cuba in 1979, seven years after being released, settling originally on the Florida Keys, where he had timber and lobster businesses, although he hardly speaks English.

“Lázaro had rented the house for 20 years, and I bought it after the raid, when Lázaro wanted to get away,” he says. “I felt I had to do the museum, so people wouldn’t forget.” Delfin lives in an apartment at the back, where he makes strong, dark, sweet – and excellent – café Cubano. Elián’s bedroom is untouched: his bed, shaped like a hot-rod car, is piled with cuddly toys and the Holy Child in a crib. In the closet hangs the school blazer and T-shirts he wore. A collection box in the sitting room has an appeal for donations towards “Elián’s little corner of freedom” – it contains $5.60.

“So far as I know,” says Delfin, “they tell Elián what to think and say in Cuba. They’re with him all the time, bodyguards and security around the house, which they change every 10 days in case there’s a plot hatched. The kid must know he’s being held against his will.”

Attempts to interview Elián González come to nothing. One is told in quaint Cárdenas that the decision lies in Havana; in Havana they say that it must be made in Cárdenas. Delfin is certainly right about the security guards – they seem to have taken over the house next door to Juan Miguel’s neat, pastel-blue home with a swing in the front garden, where Elián lives now with his two stepbrothers and stepmother, Nersy. Anyone approaching the house is questioned, photographers chased away.

Juan Miguel remained – and according to reports this week, remains – a waiter at the popular Ristorante Dante in Varadero, down the coast from Cárdenas. But, a great favourite of Castro since the Elián saga, he was also elected to the Cuban National Assembly in 2003 – a fact that makes Delfin in Miami hoot with laughter: “That just means you’re like a dog nodding in the back of a car: all you have to do is say: yes, yes, yes.”

The last time Elián was interviewed, by CBS in 2005, the then 11-year-old referred to Castro – who attended his birthday party – as “father”. He talked about his “nightmares” in the house in Miami, of how his relatives in Florida had tried to turn him against his father, and how talk of his mother “tormented” him. But, said sources in Cuba last week, while Juan Miguel obliges Fidel Castro with regular public appearances, Elián himself does so markedly less. He is reported to like table tennis, computers and karate. A reliable correspondent in Havana said this week that Elián was: “a quiet boy, reserved. The government used to bring Elián out all the time. Now they do it less. And when they do, he looks pressurised.”

Delfin insists that Elián “may be physically in prison, but mentally he is free”. He also claims that Elizabeth Brotons was “always anti-communist, even as a girl”, as the Miami version of her break for freedom demands. But the evidence suggests that love, rather than liberty or riches, was her driving force. Delfin reveals a telling detail: that her boyfriend, Rafa Munero, “had been in Miami before all this. He was working here with a friend but he missed Elián’s mother so much, he loved her, and when he returned to Cuba he did so to bring her back.”

The most thorough investigation into the González family, by the author Ann Louise Bardach, found Elizabeth’s relatives and workmates at a hotel in Cárdenas describing a girl weary of her husband’s philandering, who had fallen madly in love with rakish Rafa Munero. She had never spoken of going to Havana, let alone America.

. . .

Delfin leads the way into the back room. “They broke in through the front door, and everyone hit the ground,” he recalls of 5.45am on the day of the raid. “The boy was asleep, and while they’d been knocking, Donato brought him back here” – where Elián was famously snatched from within the closet by the marshal. But there was another back room, where a story that has never been told was unfolding. In what is now his kitchen, says Delfin, “people were still talking to Janet Reno, still trying to do a deal on the night they took Elián. Reno had said: ‘Give me five minutes – I’ll see what I can do.’ But while our people waited on the line, in they came.” That is a slight exaggeration – but only slight; in this back room were grandees of the Cuban community bargaining with the US government almost until the moment the bungalow door was broken down.

For the full text go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/21/elian-gonzalez-cuba-tug-war

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