I wrote this piece for the Dallas Morning News. It was published on Dec. 12, 1999.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez, a modest, small-town doorman, sat dazed as thousands of Cubans waved color posters of his son, Elian, suddenly the most famous first-grader in the Americas. The mass demonstrations in Matanzas and 16 other cities Friday were the largest of their kind ever held on the island, Cuban officials say. More than 2.2 million Cubans – a fifth of the population by government estimates – streamed into parks and plazas to demand that 6-year-old Elian be returned to his father.
Cuban President Fidel Castro has vowed that “heaven and earth will be moved” to get the boy home.
Fishermen found the boy clinging to an inner tube off Florida’s coast on Thanksgiving Day after a voyage that had killed his mother and nine others. Almost overnight, the shy boy was thrust into the center of a bitter custody dispute laced with all the venom of Cold War politics.
On one side are the Cubans, who say the boy belongs with his father, a Communist Party member who lives in Cardenas, a town of 95,000 east of Havana.
On the other side are the boy’s relatives in Miami – and a host of Communist-hating exiles – who say U.S.-style freedom for the child is more important than the father’s rights.
The battle over Elian is sure to come up Monday when U.S. and Cuban officials meet to discuss extending a 5-year-old migration pact between the two countries, a Western diplomat said Saturday. The Cubans “have made it clear this will be topic Number 1.”
On Friday, attorneys for the boy’s Miami relatives filed an asylum petition in Dallas that says the boy faces persecution if returned to Cuba.
Immigration officials first must decide whether to formally admit Elian to the United States, a question that was deferred when he went to the hospital after being found in the ocean. That decision will come after a meeting on the boy’s fate that the Immigration and Naturalization Service has scheduled Dec. 23, said Roger Bernstein, a Miami attorney for Elian’s U.S. relatives.
Even if the government decides Elian should not be admitted, perhaps because of the father’s custody claim, attorneys hope the asylum petition would block the boy’s return to Cuba.
“There is a well-founded fear of persecution,” said Linda Osberg-Braun, another of the family’s attorneys.
The asylum petition was filed at a Dallas INS center that processes immigrant applications from the southeastern United States.
Elian’s fateful journey began Nov. 22 when he and his mother, Elizabet Broton, and 11 others climbed aboard a 16-foot boat and headed north.
By the second day, the boat’s outboard engines failed, and it soon began to sink. The passengers clung to inner tubes, but one by one got tired and slipped into the sea, a survivor later told reporters. Only Elian and two adults survived.
After his rescue, the boy spoke to his father by phone and told him he had seen his mother drown.
In Cuba, the boy’s father said he didn’t know his ex-wife was taking their son out of the country.
“All she told him was that they were going camping for the weekend,” said Noel Ramirez, a friend and co-worker of the father. “We were surprised when we found out she had left.”
Mr. Gonzalez, 31, and Ms. Broton, 30, a hotel maid, divorced 31/2 years ago, but they had a “very civilized” relationship, Mr. Ramirez said.
“She was a good mother, and he was very close to his son,” he said. “After school, he’d usually go to his father’s house and spend the afternoon there. Then at 6 o’clock, he’d be taken to his mother’s place.”
On many weekends, Mr. Gonzalez brought his son to where he has worked for the last 11 years, Josone Park in the seaside resort of Varadero, west of Cardenas. Tourists and locals visit the park for its lush gardens, lake, restaurants and swimming pool. Mr. Gonzalez let his son play there while he worked, greeting guests, showing them around and opening doors.
“He was a great father and should get his son back,” said Mr. Ramirez, a waiter at the park. “I know a lot of Americans would agree. And if the Statue of Liberty weren’t made of bronze, I bet she would bow in shame, touch the water and put out the flames in her torch.”
After the divorce, Mr. Gonzalez married Yosbel Perez, 27, a cook. They had a baby boy, Jianny, about three months ago. A relative told Cuba’s state-run Juventud Rebelde newspaper that she worried that Elian would be jealous, “but the opposite happened. The baby is his pet. He’s crazy about him.”
The boy’s mother moved in with a man named Lazaro Romero, who also died in the fatal trip across the Florida Straits. Mr. Castro accused Mr. Romero of organizing the voyage, illegal under Cuban law, and called him “an absolute bum who never worked.”
The Cuban president also said that Mr. Romero had evidently made an illegal trip to the United States last year and returned to Cuba.
“The man’s story was that he had gotten bored, that he couldn’t adjust” to life in the United States, Mr. Castro said. Once back in Cuba, “he was jailed for 14 or 15 days and then freed.”
Mr. Romero’s family couldn’t be reached. One of his acquaintances wasn’t quite as critical of him, saying he survived like many Cubans, selling things on the black market and getting money any way he could – “by inventing,” as locals put it.
In Miami, exiles praise Elian’s mother as one who risked everything for freedom. Radio stations call her son “the last hero of the millennium,” and his new friends there have showered him with gifts, everything from portable radios to bicycles.
On average, six Cubans every day secretly pack their belongings and board rickety smugglers’ boats bound for Florida.
U.S. officials say people leave because of the grim economic conditions. Cuban officials blame a U.S. law that allows Cubans – and no other immigrants – to obtain legal residency if they’re able to reach American soil without getting caught.
The number of Cubans willing to take the risk has risen in recent years. About 2,200 made the perilous trip across the Florida Straits from October 1998 to September 1999, up from 600 the previous year, U.S. officials say.
But the tragic voyage of Elian Gonzalez has energized Cubans.
About 120,000 people gathered in Matanzas, east of Havana, on Friday. Organizers placed Elian’s tiny desk from school on stage, and his classmates stood around it, chanting, “Free Elian! Free Elian!”
Children sang tributes to the boy and protesters screamed, “Down with imperialism! Homeland or death!”
“We will win,” Elian’s father, looking weary, told the crowd.
Castro loyalists call the protests spontaneous outbursts.
“These help strengthen the revolution, but it’s not planned that way,” said Marta Rojas, a prominent Cuban author.
Others accuse the Castro government of staging the huge rallies to distract people from their everyday economic troubles.
“I agree the boy should be returned, but these protests are getting to be too much,” said a female hotel worker who requested anonymity. “Everywhere you go, it’s “Free Elian! Free Elian!’ It’s like we’re getting a daily injection of Elian. It’s on TV all the time, and there’s no getting away from it.”
Back in Cardenas, the boy’s hometown, his grandmother is making him a uniform for karate class, and neighbors are guarding his house.
“We’re sure the boy will come back,” said one neighbor, Juana Hurtado, 60. “The United States doesn’t have anything he needs. He and his mother had everything they needed here in Cuba. School is free, education is free. And as far as material things, money isn’t everything. There are a lot of people who have money, but they’re unhappy.”
Photos of Elian were plastered on doors and houses. Cardboard signs read, “11 million Cubans are committed to your liberty” and “The people are Elian’s lawyer.”
Across town, the boy’s classroom – No. 21 at the Marcelo Salado Primary School – has been turned into a kind of shrine.
Students take turns looking after Elian’s books and desk, and locals file in by the hundreds to sign a book demanding the child’s return to Cuba.
“For the freedom of little Elian” reads a message on the first page. It’s signed simply, “Fidel Castro.”
The boy began attending the 972-student school in August.
“He is very timid, but intelligent. You have to push to get him to answer a question, but once he answers he has something to say. He’s very sensitive and usually got to school early, not late,” said his teacher, Yamelin Morales.
“I gave him the job of sharpening other students pencils so he’d meet people and lose some of his shyness. He was cute walking around with his little sharpener, shaped like a crocodile.
“We just miss him and want him back.”
Staff writer David LaGesse in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.