Herald history

Elián González and a divided community

 

achardy@elNuevoHerald.com

It was on Thanksgiving Day 1999 that a little boy named Elián González was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean off Fort Lauderdale.

His rescue elated the Cuban exile community, but caused a crisis in the perennially tense U.S.-Cuba relationship.

And the raw emotions of the exile community slowly seeped into the newsroom where people were as divided as the nation over what to do about the child.

After Elián was brought ashore, immigration authorities released the boy to his Miami relatives — without first checking with his father in Cuba.

I did not cover the early stages of the Elián story, but by the time I was assigned to look at some angles, it had become a national and international affair because of the tug of war between the boy’s Miami relatives and his father in Cuba.

I shared with many other reporters the long hours of staking out the home of Elián’s Miami relatives where in the predawn hours of April 22, 2000, immigration agents seized the boy and returned him to his father.

In the end, my assignment was to look at government records of the case to see if anything had been missed in the early stages of the coverage when Elián was rescued.

Records I obtained from the Coast Guard and other agencies revealed that early assumptions about the rescue were wrong.

To this day, many believe Elián miraculously survived in the water for days after the shipwreck that killed his mother and 10 other rafters.

But the records showed that Elián, then 5, spent less than 24 hours in the water. The records also showed that two other survivors, an adult couple, may have misled authorities about how they reached a marina in Key Biscayne.

Precisely what happened before the couple and Elián went into the water remains a mystery.

The Miami Herald won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting for its coverage of the Elián González saga.

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