Fabiola Santiago

Poor Elián González is still a political pawn

In this image released by the Tribeca Film Festival, Elian Gonzalez appears in the film ‘Elian.’ Gonzalez at 23 tells what he remembers of the moment when his mother drowned at sea while trying to reach the Florida coast with him in 1999.
In this image released by the Tribeca Film Festival, Elian Gonzalez appears in the film ‘Elian.’ Gonzalez at 23 tells what he remembers of the moment when his mother drowned at sea while trying to reach the Florida coast with him in 1999. AP

Poor Elián, miracle child plucked from the seas, a militant young man now manipulated to march to the beat of the times’ political drum.

Pobrecito Elián. He’s still a pawn in a never-ending game.

He returns to Miami — not to visit, in the age of engagement, relatives who still love him and the city that embraced him after two fishermen found him floating tied to an inner tube on Thanksgiving 1999 — but by way of a gripping new film simply titled “Elián.”

From the beginning footage, of a family about to flee Cuba on a makeshift raft, to Elián González’s last words in a post-Fidel Cuba, the film stirs deep emotions.

It’s hard to remain unmoved throughout this familiar story of an ordinary Cuban family divided by politics and exile. It’s hard to contain old anger, some of it forgotten after almost 17 years, as you relive a story in which most of the Cuban-American community stood on one side and the rest of the United States on the other. It’s hard not to feel fresh anger, too, when people demand evolution from exiles yet stay in their corner. That includes Americans who think they’re experts on a Cuba they’ve never understood in all of its nuance and pathos.

This film is that good and remarkably impartial in the way it packs controversial history from both sides of the Florida Straits.

But is it worth opening the old wound of a Cuban exile community that has matured beyond what this documentary encapsulates? Is Miami ready to relive one of its darkest, most divisive chapters? The film premieres May 31 at the Tower Theater in Little Havana, to be followed by a community conversation with writer and co-director Tim Golden. The film also will be shown starting June 2 at O Cinema in Miami Beach and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood.

I think the issues are worth revisiting. Elián’s story keeps on giving. There are lessons for all. Interviews show, for instance, members of the Clinton administration involved in the 6-year-old’s violent removal from his Miami family’s home — while a reunion with his father was still being negotiated by community leaders — much too comfortable with their actions.

This personal family tragedy and custody battle between Miami relatives and Elián’s father and grandparents in Cuba ripped this city apart and made Little Havana the epicenter of national and international news coverage for months. It’s hard to watch when an irrational and emotional Miami becomes the mirror image of Castro’s roaring Cuba, both clamoring for the child to be with them, accepting no other point of view than their own.

Once you start watching “Elián,” you can’t stop even if you know how the boy’s fate unravels in distressing ways on both sides. You keep waiting for the slightest sign of understanding from both camps, and are rewarded by lots of soul searching by Cuban-American protagonists, and a slight change in the harsh anti-exile rhetoric by Elián’s father. Hope is always a part of the Cuban equation. Many Cuban Americans, certainly, are handling issues with Cuba much differently now.

And you can’t stop watching even if you know that this saga ends — for now, at least — in an I-told-you-so, with Elián becoming the most devoted follower of the hemisphere’s longest-lasting dictator, a despot for whom he still reserves religious feelings of idolatry. It’s sad to hear Elián’s one-sided interpretation of his own history. One can only hope he gets to watch this film without the censored filters through which he has lived his life in Cuba since he was plucked at machine-gun point by federal authorities from the Little Havana family who loved him.

“I would love to see him here, even if it’s only to visit,” Marisleysis González, his cousin and caretaker in Miami, says in the film. “We’re family and we love each other. I love him no matter who or what he chooses to be.”

But we still have yet to see the man Elián becomes in the inevitably modernizing post-Castro Cuba.

As Elián taunts at the end of the film before a symbolism-rich swim in sparkling Cuban waters: “My history, my movie is still untold. It hasn’t happened yet.”

Yes, as much as it hurt Miami to let Elián go, the boy belonged with his father. He was not ours to save.  

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