Elián González, who was caught up in a bitter custody war between his father in Cuba and his Miami family that ultimately returned him to the island 15 years ago when he was six, says he’d like to visit the United States again — but this time as a tourist.
González was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day 1999 after a boat carrying his mother and several other Cubans capsized, killing all aboard except the boy. He was put in the care of his great uncles as the custody battle played out, and their Little Havana home became a symbol of Cuban exile resistance.
In an exclusive interview with Jim Avila of ABC News that aired Monday, González, now 21 and a university student, opened up about his life in Cuba and his feelings about the people of the United States, a country that is now on the verge of reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
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González also sounded a conciliatory note: “For my family it has always been, we always have the desire to say to the American people, to say to each household our gratitude, appreciation and love that we have. Perhaps one day we could pay a visit to the United States. I could personally thank those people who helped us, who were there by our side.”
He even said he would he would be willing to visit his Miami relatives if they admit they were wrong to try to keep him in the United States.
The battle lines were drawn near the home of the boy’s great uncle, Lazaro González, and crowds showed up daily to show their support for keeping him in Miami, which his uncles said had been his dead mother’s wish. But others thought his place was with his father, Juan Miguel González, and ultimately that is what the U.S. judicial system decided.
Elián returned to Cuba with his father, stepmother and half brother on June 28, 2000, just hours after the Supreme Court rejected the final effort by his Miami relatives to keep him here.
Lazaro’s brother Delfin, 82, still lives in the back of the Little Havana house that was Elián’s home while he was in the United States. Lazaro’s daughter Marysleisis, who was a mother figure for Elián, is now married and has two children of her own.
The front of the modest one-story home was turned into a museum to Elián years ago but Delfin said it is no longer open to the public. On the front gate is a memorial to Elián’s mother. Her picture and a vase filled with two red carnations face the street.
The young man told ABC that he believes he survived because of his mother’s efforts. “I believe that if today she is not here with me it is because she fought until the very last minute for me to survive,” he said.
Delfin González said he would welcome Elián into his home for a visit. “Family has nothing to do with politics,” he said
On Monday, Delfin was fixing one of the museum exhibits: the model of a boat with a dolphin leaping at its side and a picture of Elián just after his rescue on top.
He said friends and neighbors still ask about Elián and remember him fondly. “The community would receive him with great affection,” he said.
Elián told ABC that he would like to see his Miami relatives again. Avila reported that the young man he would visit the family under one condition: they must admit they were wrong.
Although Elián became a political pawn between two opposing political systems, Delfin González said, “What we did at the moment was correct, to want a child to be raised in a situation where you have all the opportunities through your own actions and not in a system where the government manipulates you.”
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado isn’t so sure the community would welcome Elián with open arms. Regalado was a radio journalist in 2000, broadcasting live from NW Second Street day after day as the custody saga unfolded.
“I hope he doesn’t come. It would be very polarizing. People who were trying to save him were beaten by police; some who went to bat for him ended up in jail. People lost their jobs who stayed in front of the house praying for him,” Regalado said. “We don’t need this kind of drama in Miami.”
April 22, 2000, the day federal agents removed Elián from his Miami relatives’ home at gunpoint and in a haze of pepper spray, is seared in many Miamians’ memories. Some in the crowd who had gathered outside the home to defend the boy climbed over police barricades to try to stop the agents and threw rocks and garbage cans, resulting in arrests.
Families were divided over the issue. Some Cuban-Americans said they could no longer understand neighbors who thought the boy’s place was with his father. And what scared some people the most was the realization that divisions in the community were far deeper than many had thought.
Delfin said he hasn’t spoken or communicated via letter with Elián since he was taken from the Little Havana home. “Total silence,” he said. But he has fond memories of the “happy, naughty,” very playful boy who frolicked with the dog and grabbed at his cap.
Elián told ABC that he would like to see a baseball game, visit museums in Washington and just talk to Americans. Today, Elián is a studying engineering and engaged to his childhood sweetheart.
Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, said he questions the timing of the Elián interview but said he expected it was done with the blessing of the Cuban government. “Perhaps the Cuban government wants to use him as an ambassador now,” said Hernández, who was among those who worked to keep Elián in the United States.
He said Elián’s Miami relatives always told him the boy didn’t want to go back to Cuba and that he always thought he would return some day. “This family will probably be reunited in the United States — not in Cuba — like so many other Cuban families,” Hernández said.