saving elian

Written, Produced and Directed by
Ofra Bikel


ANNOUNCER: It was just before dawn on April 22nd, 2000.

    SYLVIA IRIONDO, President, Mothers Against Repression: We heard screams, shouts. "Move! Move! Get out of the way! Get out of the way!" And then stomping in the door. And then we were engulfed.

    CARLOS SALADRIGAS, Businessman: At that point, it was utter chaos, and- and you know, people were running all over the place. It was just total pandemonium.

ANNOUNCER: It was a fight that divided the whole community of Miami more than anything else before.

    ALINA INTERIAN: I feel betrayed by my government, by my country, by my friends.

ANNOUNCER: In an operation that lasted less than three minutes, U.S. federal marshals removed Elian Gonzalez by force from the home of his great-uncle in Little Havana.

    COUNTER-DEMONSTRATOR: You know, you come over here and you want to be an American, but you don't want to go by our laws.

    RICK DE LA TORRE: Up until the other day, these people were your neighbors. And now this line has been drawn down the street.

    LOURDES SIMON: Really, for us, the child going back, he's not going back to his family, he's going back to Fidel, right to his hands.

    FIDEL CASTRO: [through translator] This is Juan-Miguel. What should I tell them? A special greeting to our people.

    DAMIAN FERNANDEZ, Chairman, International Relations Dept, FIU: I think that you must understand the Elian case as a metaphor. And both sides, here in Miami and there in Havana and throughout Cuba, they were fighting for the nation of tomorrow.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight FRONTLINE examines the passion and purpose behind the battle over Elian Gonzalez and its effect on both the Miami community and the Cuban-American cause.



NARRATOR: He was found on November 25th, 1999, in the Straits of Florida, clinging to an inner tube. His mother drowned, together with 11 other people in the raft from Cuba. His father remained on the island. It was Thanksgiving Day and a story for the evening news.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: And from the ocean waters off the coast of Florida tonight, a real-life Thanksgiving story to tell you about.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: -the young Cuban refugee, alive after at least 3 days at sea, hidden from view inside this inner tube-

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: His name is Elian Gonzalez. He has a father still in Cuba and cousins he just met in Miami who came to the hospital today to bring him home-

NARRATOR: In spite of his traumatic experience, the little boy emerged the next day, weak and pale, but healthy enough to go home, and now in the temporary custody of his great uncle and his family.

What had happened in the Straits of Florida would remain a mystery. According to two other survivors, the boat had capsized two or three days earlier, but Elian's physician said he didn't show signs of being in the water that long. In churches all over Miami, Cuban-Americans said they knew why.

Father FRANCISCO SANTANA, Our Lady of Charity Shrine, Miami: And I remember at the end of November, people coming to this church, telling me about this child that somehow was saved on the waters. They were telling me the stories about the dolphins that were protecting him from the sharks. And immediately everybody began to say, "This is a miracle."

NARRATOR: Coming from the sea is a powerful theme in Cuban tradition. Legend has it that 400 years ago, two fishermen found the statue of the Virgin of Charity floating in the middle of the ocean. She was saved and became the patron saint of Cuba.

1st CHURCHGOER: He saw the Virgin on the sea, and the dolphins helped him. It's a miracle.

2nd CHURCHGOER: [through translator] That journey, where his mother lost her life and he was guarded by the dolphins, had to be God's miracle. No one can deny that.

3rd CHURCHGOER: I think definitely that Elian's survival in the water for such a long time has to be a miracle of God.

NARRATOR: A miracle from God, and perhaps an omen.

Father FRANCISCO SANTANA: And somehow they were making the connection that this child was like a sign that was sent to us by God that somehow this was connected to the end of communism in Cuba.

NARRATOR: At the time of Elian's arrival in the U.S., Fidel Castro had been in power in Cuba for 41 years, his name forever linked to the revolution, with both its promises and its misfortunes. Lately, there were few triumphs he could point to. The economy was stagnant, the state subsidies insufficient. The island seemed frozen in the 1950s, for which Fidel Castro blamed the American embargo. And there was no more Soviet Union to bail him out. In November, 1999, he and his revolution looked worn and tired.

Then he was suddenly handed a new cause to rally his people.

    FIDEL CASTRO: [through translator] We will move heaven and earth to get the child back! If they have any brains, they will make sure the boy is returned within 72 hours.

DAMIAN FERNANDEZ, Chairman, International Relations Dept., FIU: He demands the return of Elian, and at that point, most people believe that Elian should be returned to the father. Once Fidel makes this a political case, this side reacts to Fidel's words and takes the opposite position almost automatically.

LISANDRO PEREZ, Director, Cuban Research Institute, FIU: It didn't become just a question of where should the child live or where should the child go. It became now a question of "Fidel wants this," so now everybody in Miami - or I mean the Cuban exile community in Miami - a lot them in Miami say, "Well if he wants the child, he can't have him." And it became very quickly therefore a confrontation that fed into a 40-year-old struggle between Cuban exiles in Miami and Fidel Castro.

NARRATOR: In Miami the struggle now focused on the small house in Little Havana where Elian Gonzalez stayed with his great-uncle and his family. Hundreds of people came to show their love and encouragement, the images on television reaching out to Cuban Americans, some of whom were unexpectedly moved.

Rick de La Torre's parents fled Cuba in 1959.

RICK DE LA TORRE: When I saw that child, I realized that that child could have easily been a younger brother of mine, the kid across the street. It could have been any of the other Eliancitos that- that- it could have been me, you know, if my parents didn't escape communism.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: Elian Gonzalez celebrated his 6th birthday in Little Havana today-

NARRATOR: Frank Portuondo is also a son of Cuban exiles.

FRANK PORTUONDO: Something snapped. I have a 7-year-old boy. And I see what this 6-year-old boy is going through, and that brought me to tears a number of times, when I see my boy and how innocent he is.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: In Miami today, Elian Gonzalez took a tour of the elementary school where he is expected to attend classes in January.

NARRATOR: Lourdes Simon is a poet and an actress who was born in Cuba.

LOURDES SIMON: I remember- I left Cuba when I was 8 years old, and I remember being in school there, and I see myself all over again in this child.

NARRATOR: The child, Elian, was born and grew up 60 miles east of Havana in the town of Cardenas, where his friends were waiting and preparing for what they thought was his imminent return. In school, his empty desk was marked "Do not touch." It was waiting for Elian's return. At his home, his immediate family was angry and despondent.

"The child must be with us," his grandmother says. "He was born here. He grew up here. We are his family."

Like other Cuban families, this one, too, is divided. While all of Elian's grandparents still live in Cuba, several of his father's uncles had left for Miami, where they were now holding onto Elian.

Elian's parents had been divorced, but Juan-Miguel and his former wife, Elisabeth, remained good friends and raised the child together in both their homes. Now he was desperate to get his son back.

"They've kidnapped my son," says Elian's father. "They won't even let me talk to him by phone. He's been kidnapped. There is no other word for it."

In Miami, most Cuban-Americans, like Alina Interian, were not touched by the father's plight.

ALINA INTERIAN: The child belongs with his father. Yes, clearly, that's- that's the logical, normal thing. But it's not the regular father. It's not the regular child. It's not the regular country.

SYLVIA IRIONDO, President, Mothers Against Repression: Once Castro took control of this situation, the father could no longer speak on behalf of that child. Castro was speaking on behalf of the father and of that child.

LOURDES SIMON: Really, for us, the child going back- he's not going back to his family, he's going back to Fidel, right to his hands.

    CUBAN RALLY LEADER: Viva Fidel! Viva la revolucion! Abajo imperialismo! Patria o muerte! Venceremos!

NARRATOR: There is no doubt that as they grow up, children in Cuba are taught to venerate Fidel Castro.

    LITTLE BOY AT RALLY: [subtitles] A kiss and a hug to our unconquered, unforgettable, irreproachable commander in chief, Fidel Castro Ruz!

NARRATOR: In the weeks after Elian arrived in Miami, thousands of children were paraded around the island to rally the Cuban people to a new cause, Fidel always in attendance.

LISANDRO PEREZ, Director, Cuban Research Institute, FIU: There's been all kinds of conflict before between the U.S. and Cuba and between the Cuban community and the Castro government, but this is really the first time that it has had such a human face, which is the face of this little boy. And what's interesting is that the story of this little boy is able therefore to mobilize people that previously were not very politically active in matters having to do with Cuba.

RICK DE LA TORRE: It was a wake-up call. It radicalized me. I had to go, you know, promote. I had to go share. I had to go do those things, so I got involved.

LOURDES SIMON: I think Elian created a lot of consciousness. We became very united, Cuban-Americans as a group.

NARRATOR: They were united in their determination that now that they had Elian here, they were never going to let him go back to communist Cuba. For many Cuban-Americans, like Father Santana, Elian evoked poignant memories of another drama 40 years ago.

Father FRANCISCO SANTANA, Our Lady of Charity Shrine, Miami: That's why Elian is so important, because the exile community or the Cuban-American community, whatever you're going to call it, began precisely by the concept of "Save the children." After the Bay of Pig invasions, lots of parents began to send their children by themselves just to save them from communism.

NARRATOR: In the early '60s, 14,000 children arrived in the U.S. without their parents in order to escape the revolution. It became a famous exodus, which was named operation Pedro Pan, or Peter Pan. The man responsible for the children's care in Miami was Father Bryan Walsh.

[ Learn more about the Pedro Panners story]

Monsignor BRYAN WALSH: The Operation Pedro Pan created an opportunity for Cuban parents to decide how their children would be educated. They were afraid that the Catholic schools would be closed. They were afraid that they would lose control of the education of their children, and all of these things happened.

NARRATOR: On this day, a group of Pedro Panners celebrated Monsignor Walsh's 70th birthday. The talk was of Elian. But if we expected this group of successful immigrants to support Elian's Miami relatives, we were surprised by their private reactions.

ELLY CHOVEL, Founder, Operation Pedro Pan Group: I think that Elian deserves to live in the best conditions possible, with everything that a child should have. But let's face it, how could an orphan be free? If you're going to lose your mother or your father, how could this orphan be free?

MIGUEL XIQUES, Real Estate Agent: When we came here, our parents let us came here, having in mind that we were going to be in the United States for a short period because they thought that the government of Cuba was not to be for a long period. They will have never allow us to come to the United States if they thought it was forever.

GERARDO SIMS, Assistant U.S. Attorney: I would want to be with my father, and I would want my children to be with me. Unless we are willing to say communist people have no rights when it comes to raising their children, we're stuck.

JORGE PEREZ, Engineer: If the father wants the child to be with him, I say yes, the child should be with his father.

FRANK AVELLANET, Inventor: That is the bond, father and son. They have to be together, regardless.

ELOISA ECHAZABAL, Account Executive: I have mixed emotions about the whole thing. In my heart, I feel that Elian belongs to his father, but I know that if I go to little Havana and I say exactly what I feel- if I say that I feel that Elian should stay with his father no matter what his father wants to do, I am going to be very disliked.

NARRATOR: To be disliked in Little Havana is not a pleasant experience. It is a tight-knit community, protective of its language and culture, proud of the fact that they are Cubans and also that they are somehow apart.

Carlos Saladrigas, himself a former Peter Pan child, is a successful businessman and civic leader.

CARLOS SALADRIGAS, Businessman: As a community, we came here and we very much made a decision that we were not going to integrate into the mainstream of American society, in the sense that other immigrant groups have done before. We were not here- we didn't come here with a specific desire to become a part of the melting pot.

MAURICE FERRE, Mayor of Miami 1973-1985: They're not here as immigrants, they're here as exiles, and I think they look upon themselves as exiles. Now, the fact that 95 percent of them will stay after Castro has gone is not significant. It's how do you define yourself? And the definition of the Cuban community here is that they are exiles.

NARRATOR: As exiles, they are mostly dominated by anti-Communist ideas, with a right-wing Spanish press whose main issue is the anti-Cuba struggle. The radio stations are ferociously anti-Castro. For months they had been exhorting the public not to let Elian go back to Cuba. The right-wing media is the most conservative and influential factor in Miami, which few people attempt to cross.

Francisco Aruca has. He was the first broadcaster to adopt a soft line on Cuba, while understanding the dangers of crossing the hardliners.

FRANCISCO ARUCA, Radio Commentator: The moment you get away from their thesis, you are considered an enemy and they become steamrollers. They want to roll all over you. Simple as that.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: Angry demonstrators broke down police barricades outside the Gonzalez residence in Little Havana today. They were protesting the latest court ruling to return Elian-

NARRATOR: Bernardo Benes knows what can happen in Miami as well as anyone else. He has a story to tell.

BERNARDO BENES: That's a good story. Sad.

NARRATOR: Twenty years ago, he was one of the most successful and visible persons in the Cuban-American community in Miami. He was a high-ranking official of a bank and director of the United Way International. He served on the boards of a dozen civic organizations and had friends in high places.

BERNARDO BENES: I was vacationing with my family in Panama, August, 1977, when government officials of Cuba came from Havana especially to meet me. I think they wanted to meet me because I was the second closest Cuban-American to President Carter. We had lunch and dinner, and when I came back to Miami, I called a couple of friends of mine in the government and I told them the story. And they confirmed that they were very high officials of the Cuban government.

NARRATOR: In 1977, Jimmy Carter, as part of an overall commitment to human rights, was considering improving relations with Cuba. Fidel Castro was also interested. Bernardo Benes was asked to act as a go-between. In February, '78, he went to Cuba to meet with Castro. They had 14 secret meetings over the next few months.

Then his picture, taken with Castro, appeared on the front page of the Miami News, together with the news that Castro had agreed to release 3,600 political prisoners and promised to allow relatives from Miami to return to visit their loved ones in Cuba.

Benes flew back to Miami with the first group of prisoners and their families, welcoming them to the safety of the territorial air space of the United States. The reunion was a momentous and moving occasion for the families who had been separated for years, not knowing if they would ever meet again. But Benes couldn't join in the celebration.

BERNARDO BENES: When the plane arrived in Miami, there were eight members of the sheriff department of Dade County surrounding me, and to my surprise, I said "What is this?" He says, "There are many phone calls and threats of your life."

At the time, I couldn't understand. I was not expecting to be received as a hero, but I was neither expected to be killed by the Cuban exiles for two things that I did that were good.

NARRATOR: Benes was branded as Castro's agent, a traitor. His bank was bombed, he lost his job. The attack was one of at least 13 bombing incidents between 1973 and 1983 in Miami alone, all related to the exile power struggle.

Benes would never recapture his former life. He was ostracized, attacked in public places, and had to be protected by the FBI. For 21 years he has lived in a world apart.

BERNARDO BENES: Still today, still today. I became a pariah in Miami. I have lived a very private, secret life in the last 21 years.

INTERVIEWER: Why did they do that?

BERNARDO BENES: Well, because I talked to Castro. Why Elian? The same thing. Hate. When people hate, they don't think.

NARRATOR: Hate for Castro is at the very center of Cuban-American politics towards the island. Any suggestion of a dialogue with the tyrant or of easing the economic embargo which causes hardship to his people is met with strident objections, if not outright violence.

LISANDRO PEREZ, Director, Cuban Research Institute, FIU: I think you could make the argument to many people here in Miami that the embargo is helpful to Fidel Castro. It enables him to blame others for his troubles. But the embargo can not be understood as a rational, pragmatic measure to overthrow the Cuban government. It has to be understood in emotional terms. If you lift the embargo, for many Cuban exiles it means Fidel will have won, and the Cuban exiles will have been defeated. Relations with Cuba would be normalized, and it will seem as if the struggle had been lost.

NARRATOR: Alfredo Duran believed in those ideas as a committed hard-line leader in the community.

ALFREDO DURAN, Attorney: I, as most of the Cubans that were here in Miami, were working within the context of the cold war. And as such, we became very, very conservative, very, very right-wing. I started changing, essentially, in the '80s, when I saw that we were getting to a stage where what Cuba needed was a transition, peaceful, without confrontation. I no longer believe that Cuban-Americans should invade Cuba. I no longer believe that Cuban-Americans should kill other Cubans. I believe that we should work towards a transition.

NARRATOR: Duran, an attorney, had served twice as president of the Bay of Pigs veteran association before he moved politically to the center.

ALFREDO DURAN: I was thrown out of the association for being what the Cuban community calls a "dialoguero," which mainly means a person who wants to establish a dialogue with the Cuban government to bring about a transition towards democracy in Cuba. And to the right-wing or more conservative community here in Miami, a "dialoguero" is the worst thing that you could be called. It implies to them that you're a traitor because you want to establish a dialogue with the enemy.

NARRATOR: According to Francisco Aruca, it is a fact of life in Miami.

FRANCISCO ARUCA, Radio Commentator: From the moment we opened our offices in 1986, we felt the pressure. And our offices at different times have been bombed, the windows broken, and so forth. So from day one until this moment, we have been feeling pressures of doing that business here. It goes with Miami.


FRANCISCO ARUCA: Oh, yeah. It goes with Cuban Miami. Whoever wants to do something normal with Cuba in Miami, even if it is legal and if it is ethical, still would have to be willing to pay a price.

NARRATOR: The Miami political landscape is dominated by Cuban-Americans, who hold the majority of seats in all the top political bodies in the county.

A beautiful historic building downtown is the new home of the Cuban-American National Foundation, a powerful organization whose declared aim is to influence U.S. policy regarding Cuba. It was established in 1981 and was led by the fiercely anti-Castro Jorge Mas Canosa, the man who the community believed would be the president of Cuba when the exiles returned to the island.

He had been astonishingly successful in Washington as he managed to sell his anti-Castro policies to one administration after another both by persuasion and donation. When Mas Canosa died three years ago, he left a vacuum at the top, but also a rich and powerful organization committed to continue the struggle. His legacy was to never stop fighting and to always close ranks.

Cuban-Americans who disagreed did not often voice their doubts publicly.

DAMIAN FERNANDEZ, Chairman, International Relations Dept, FIU: There's a sense of, we all need to rally around the flag because any deviation might spell disaster for the cause at large. And there are many people that believe something in private and say the contrary in public.

NARRATOR: Even close friends hadn't always told each other how they felt.

MIGUEL XIQUES, Real Estate Agent: When I came out of your interview, I was positive I was the only one that held a point of view that Elian should go back to his immediate family in Cuba. And I learned to my surprise that everybody in this gathering have similar views. I think that's extremely interesting.

FRANK AVELLANET, Inventor: The most interesting experience of all is to discover that we all agree and that we all kept it to ourselves. That's been wonderful. That truly has been wonderful because, all along, I thought that if I had walked down south of 8th street and said what I had what I told you, I would have been lynched. So that was my feeling.

ELOISA ECHAZABAL, Account Executive: I really wonder how many people here in Miami feel deep in their hearts the same way that we feel. Because I'll tell you from experience, at work I have spoken with some people individually, and they have said to me, "Eloisa, I do believe that little Elian should be with his father, no matter where his father is. But we can't divide the community."

NARRATOR: So the community stood firm, outwardly undivided, praying for the struggle against the dictator. Day after day, in sun and rain they came, for the island, for themselves and for the child. But this show of unity came at a price.

JOHN de LEON, Attorney: The emotions in connection with the Elian Gonzalez saga were so raw, and they were raw to the extent that I have probably never lived through in my relationship with my family. I had a position in relationship to that story. I felt it was a mistake to try and separate the child from the father as a way of getting back at the Cuban government. I thought it was not going to work. To my parents, I picked the wrong side, I voted on the wrong ticket.

NARRATOR: John de Leon's upper-middle-class family left Cuba with their two elder children in 1959.

JOHN de LEON: It was a family drama. It was a personal family drama in which the child no one knew was the central character. And why that happened, I'd like- I'd like to understand. I mean, my father was more sure about what Elian Gonzalez meant than, you know, I've heard him talk about in terms of the Cuban revolution in 20 years.

We have lots of friends who spent 20 or 30 years in Castro's prisons, yet the reaction to their being in prison for 30 years did not generate the depth of emotion that this child created in my family.

Do you understand what I'm trying to say? Friends, people my parents grew up with, ended up in jail for those years, but I don't remember as a kid hearing, you know, screaming and yelling over the plight of those friends who were in prison. We'd hear it, we'd talk about it, we'd talk about how horrible it was, but not to the level, not to the emotional pitch that it interfered with the relationship with the parent and child. And it was a child no one had a human connection with.

MAX CASTRO, North-South Center, U. of Miami: People felt that if this child is returned to Cuba, it means that the exile image of Cuba as the ultimate, absolute hell is not validated. One doesn't send anyone back to a concentration camp, to a slave plantation, and that is the image in which Cuban-Americans tend to portray and view the Cuban situation- in stark, black-versus-white, absolute Manichaean terms.

NARRATOR: As the saga of Elian dragged on - with all the legal twists and turns and the growing passions, the Cuban flags, the occasional violence all covered by non-stop television - non-Cubans in Miami were growing alienated and angry.

Rebecca Medina, whose parents are Puerto Rican, is a journalism student.

REBECCA MEDINA: When this whole thing began, there were a lot of people in our community that felt sympathetic, but it came to a point where you couldn't say anything about the issue if you weren't Cuban. Because, basically, if it wasn't going to be the same opinion that the Cuban community shared on this, they didn't want to hear it. And if they did hear it, we were labeled communists.

BRUCE WHITTEN, Businessman: I saw fights involved because people went in to express their opinion, and they beat people up right there on TV cameras because they didn't agree with what the Cuban people agreed with.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: A press photographer was escorted away from demonstrators when the mood turned ugly in front of the Gonzalez home.

NARRATOR: Ilene London is a teacher who works with Cuban-Americans.

ILENE LONDON: In school, I had no freedom to speak how I wanted to speak. I went to work, I signed in, I went to my classroom, I did my work, I signed out, I went home. Elian should have all the freedom he wants, but I can't say what I want to say. That doesn't make any sense to me.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: Traffic ground to a halt in downtown Miami today as demonstrators blocked vehicles at the entrance to the port.

NARRATOR: Bruce Whitten, a businessman, has lived in Miami all his life.

BRUCE WHITTEN: I have felt like an outsider in this city for a long time. It's what they want or how they feel, and nothing else counts. Your political leaders, a lot of them, show the same thing. This is Cuba to them, in my opinion. South Florida, Miami, Hialeah, a lot of it is Cuba, and they're going to run it as Cuba.

[ More on the Cuban exiles' power]

NARRATOR: According to Rebecca Medina, even the Latin community does not feel comfortable.

REBECCA MEDINA: There are so many in the Latin community that wish that they could say the things that I'm saying or express the way that they feel, but they're afraid. They're afraid of being retaliated against in a hostile way. They're afraid of losing business. They're afraid of losing money. And I don't think that should be happening in the United States of America.

NARRATOR: Many Cuban-Americans were perplexed.

ALINA INTERIAN: The whole reaction in the community started to make me think that there was a lot of resentment that had been building up and that I never really realized that. Maybe I was blocking it. Maybe I was not wanting to see it. And all of the sudden, it was surfacing, and I was saying, "Wow, what is this? What is going on?"

NARRATOR: There are close to half a million African-Americans in Miami-Dade county. The relations between them and the Cuban community have never been more strained. Maurice Ferre, former mayor of Miami, knows the community well.

MAURICE FERRE, Mayor of Miami 1973-1985: I walked in the Martin Luther King parade this year, as I have almost every year for the past 25 years, and it's always, "Jobs, jobs, jobs. What are you going to do for the community?" This time it was Elian. "Send the boy back. Why don't you stand up and send the boy back?" And so this also became a spearhead for the black community.

NARRATOR: The New Birth Baptist Church in North Dade has a congregation of 13,000, mostly African-Americans.

Bishop VICTOR CURRY, Senior Pastor, New Birth Baptist Church: What I really think the Elian thing did was to bring out a deeper problem we have here in Miami-Dade. We understand oppression, and we don't mind anybody getting away from oppression. But at the same time, you cannot come here, become empowered, and then treat black people, you know, the way other people have treated us, and that is to leave us out.

NARRATOR: According to Bishop Victor Curry, the African-American community wanted no part in the fight for Elian.

Bishop VICTOR CURRY: They have made so many people just turn away from them because they keep pushing this thing. Let it go. Let it go. We have more pressing problems in America.

NARRATOR: The idea that the fight against communism may not be considered vitally important is unacceptable to Cuban-Americans.

RICK DE LA TORRE: I had thought that communism was bad. That's what we had always been taught. You know, you fight against communism. You do it in Eastern Europe, you do it in Asia, you do it everywhere. And then 90 miles away, supposedly it's OK. And that just didn't make sense to me.

JOE GARCIA, Exec. Dir. Cuban American Nat'l Foundation: Here in Miami, Florida, communism is still alive. We have victims that wash up on our shore almost on a daily basis. The cold war didn't end for us. We're still- people are still dying for that pursuit of freedom. It may have ended for America and we may want to move on, but it didn't end here.

[ Explore the history of U.S.-Cuba relations]

Bishop VICTOR CURRY: You have a problem with Castro, go to Cuba, fight on his ground. We live in- you know, it just tears up the whole community by them fighting for that one man or against that one man 90 miles away.

NARRATOR: Ninety miles away, that one man, master strategist, was exploiting the situation for all it was worth. He mobilized the whole island with weekly marches, demanding that the exiles let go of Elian. Youngsters, teenagers, mothers and grandmothers were all on the march while children sang and performed.

    CUBAN CHILD: [through translator] How terrible, how heavy is my backpack. Just think how weighed down it is with all these anti-Cuban laws that I must carry inside-

NARRATOR: The scrawny, cowering U.S. is brow-beaten by healthy Pioneer children with lofty ideals. The child who only a few months before could have participated in Castro's demonstration was now in Miami, exposed to another set of ideals.

As the saga went on and on and the INS demands to hand over the boy were countered by protracted legal maneuvering, many in the Cuban community got more and more attached to Elian as a child and as a symbol.

SYLVIA IRIONDO, President, Mothers Against Repression: In that child, we saw all the pain and all the suffering of 41 years. Elian symbolizes the pain of the Cuban family, the Cuban families, that throughout 41 years of oppression have been divided by one man and one system.

NARRATOR: Then in the last week of March, a federal district judge ruled that the boy should be reunited with his father. The mayor of Miami-Dade County, Alex Penelas, made a speech warning the government.

    ALEX PENELAS: We all want to make it very clear this afternoon that if the Justice Department's handling of this matter, if their continued provocation in the form of unjustified threats to revoke the boy's parole, leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible, and specifically Janet Reno and the president of the United States, for anything that may occur in this community!

NARRATOR: Ironically, in Cuba, Fidel Castro applauded the wisdom of the ruling. "Jurists consider it impeccable," he said, "and from a moral point of view, this is the only ruling possible. The Miami mafia," he announced, "has lost the battle. The question is, what do they do now?"

He knew what he was going to do. Two weeks later, he accompanied Juan-Miguel, his wife and their young child to the airplane that would carry them to the United States.

The small plane touched down at Washington, D.C., in the early morning. They were greeted with signs of "Welcome to freedom," which they ignored. The next day they went to meet with Attorney General Janet Reno.

    JANET RENO, Attorney General: This is a nation of laws by which all must abide. There is a bond, a special, wonderful, sacred bond between a father and his son, one that I intend to uphold.

NARRATOR: On April 12th, Janet Reno flew to Miami to personally talk with the Gonzalez relatives. She left with no agreement except an order for them to produce the child the next day.

Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle, made his own announcement

    LAZARO GONZALEZ: [through translator] There was no agreement with Janet Reno on how to reunite Elian with his father. They will have come and take him by force. He does not want to go.

NARRATOR: On reading the news, Elena Freyre, executive director of a committee which supports dialogue with Cuba, was stunned.

ELENA FREYRE, Exec. Dir. Cuban Cmte. for Democracy: She got on a plane personally, personally got on a plane and pleaded with these people. And whatever possessed them to think that they could say no to the attorney general and the U.S. government is beyond my imagination.

NARRATOR: Cuban experts were not surprised.

MAX CASTRO, North-South Center, U. of Miami: Cuban-Americans have obtained so many unlikely things from U.S. governments - an invasion of Cuba, an embargo that everybody in the world opposes. Why shouldn't Cuban-Americans think that when they have this lovely, angelic child as a symbol of democracy and they have been able to cast the issue about being about Fidel, not about Juan-Miguel- why shouldn't they think that they can prevail in a presidential election year?

NARRATOR: The fact that Janet Reno imposed a new deadline for the child to be handed over to the father did not seem to make much difference to the community activists. They were more determined than ever not to give up the child to a father who was going to take him to Cuba.

Father FRANCISCO SANTANA, Our Lady of Charity Shrine, Miami: Lazaro Gonzalez told me this. He said, "To send Elian back to Cuba is to send him to hell." Lazaro even told me, you know, and I truly believe so, that it was even better for the sharks to have eaten Elian in the waters than to go back to a country in which he's going to be manipulated by the system, in which he's going to be- they are going to teach him to hate, they are going to teach him everything that are really in contradiction with human nature.

NARRATOR: A homemade video of the child addressing his father suddenly materialized and was broadcast all over the world.

"I don't want to go to Cuba," said the boy. "If you want to, you can come here, but I will not go to Cuba."

ELENA FREYRE: It was a P.R. disaster. The whole thing was truly disgusting, and in my opinion, very close to child abuse.

NARRATOR: All Elian's father could do was watch it on television and wait. There was a feeling in Miami that time was running out.

    1st NEWS ANNOUNCER: Tensions are clearly mounting today in front of the Gonzalez residence as hundreds of demonstrators gathered to-

    2nd NEWS ANNOUNCER: There are rumors coming from Miami today that the U.S. government is prepared to remove Elian Gonzalez from the home of his great-uncle in Little Havana.

FRANCISCO ARUCA, Radio Commentator: I really never thought that the federal government was going to give up on implementation of the law just because Lazaro Gonzalez and another bunch of Cubans keep believing that the law isn't going to be applied in Miami. This became a very important issue where most Americans - and the figures went up all the way up to sometimes 80 percent - were saying, "Come on. That child belongs to the father."

BRUCE WHITTEN, Businessman: I felt the government had no choice. The family, the Miami family, left them no choice but to come and take him.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: It happened at 5:14 this morning. Federal agents raided the home of Lazaro Gonzalez to remove the 6-year-old Cuban boy, Elian, and reunite him with his father. A small crowd of stunned protesters responded by throwing bottles and debris at the agents as they sped away in three white mini-vans.

NARRATOR: It would take two months before Elian would go back to Cuba, two months of demonstrations, court procedures, and impotent rage. And there would be counter-demonstrations by non-Cubans and more rage and bitterness.

ALINA INTERIAN: I felt betrayed by my government, by my country, by my friends.

    COUNTER-DEMONSTRATOR: You know, you come over and you want to be an American, but you don't want to go by our laws.

RICK DE LA TORRE: Up until the other day, these people were your neighbors. These were the people you shop with, you went to church with, you worshipped with. And then now- now this line has been drawn down the street.

LOURDES SIMON: And then you wonder, and you say, well, you know, where's my home? Where am I ever going to- where am I going to feel safe? Where am I going to go from here?

NARRATOR: Elian and his family arrived in Cuba on June 28th, 2000, to a rapturous reception. He'd been gone for seven months. Fidel Castro thanked Juan-Miguel for his courage and his victory. But the real victor was Castro, even as he pinned a medal of honor on Juan-Miguel's chest.

"I have done nothing," said Juan-Miguel, "I have done nothing that any other father who loved his son and believed in socialism and the revolution would not have done. I have done nothing."

NARRATOR: But everyone there knew that he had done a lot. He could have stayed in the United States, living the good life, but he chose to return to Cuba. He helped Castro rally the people around him. And he might have brought him some hope of improved relations between the United States and Cuba. The experts in the United States debated the possibility.

LISANDRO PEREZ, Director, Cuban Research Institute, FIU: I think that a lot of the U.S. has now, because of Elian, focused a bit on Cuba and focused on the role that Cuban-Americans have had in formulating U.S. policy and may be unwilling, I think, in the future to let U.S. policy be determined by Cuban exiles in Miami.

MAX CASTRO: Even though the hard-line exiles lost the Elian battle, by keeping this going for so long and by making it so excruciatingly difficult to resolve what seems like a clear-cut legal case, they've shown that they still have the capacity to throw a wrench in the rational resolution of any problem between the United States and Cuba.

NARRATOR: In Miami, life on the outside seemed to go on as it always had. People no longer talked about Elian as they went about their daily business, but his memory was everywhere.

DAMIAN FERNANDEZ, Chairman, International Relations Dept, FIU: I think that you must understand the Elian case as a metaphor. Elian represents a nation, the young nation, the nation that will be. And both sides wanted to guide the future of that nation, and therefore you have this emotional intensity and this passionate pursuit of keeping Elian on your side.

NARRATOR: But now that Elian was gone and only his posters remained, what difference did he make in this high-stakes game, this war game played for 41 years between the exiles and Fidel Castro?

[ Study more about Elian's legacy]

CARLOS SALADRIGAS, Businessman: In the end, it turned out to be a historical event of major proportions. It has changed forever the exile community. It has changed forever the Cuban nation, and it has changed forever the life of Elian Gonzalez. You know, he became a pawn in a political game, and he got caught in the middle. And at the end, everything mattered but Elian.




Written, Produced and Directed by
Ofra Bikel

Susan Fanshel

Jean Kim Chaix

Ross Tuttle

Will Lyman

Bill Turnley

William Melvin

Maurice Chayut

Orquesta Sublime
ìSabroso como El Guarapoî

Michael H. Amundson

Jim Sullivan

Ralph Petri, Creative Group

Tati Tati Music Publishing


WFOR Channel 4, Miami
ABC News Video Source
WLRN Public Television, Miami
WPBT Channel 2, Miami
AP/Worldwide Photos
Marc Pokempner Photography

Tim Mangini

M.G. Rabinow

Steve Audette

Michael H. Amundson
John MacGibbon

Jennifer Brown

Patricia Giles

Mason Daring
Martin Brody

The Caption Center

Erin Martin Kane

Christopher Kelly

Jessica Smith

Jennifer McCauley

John Memoli

Lee Ann Donner

Mary Sullivan

Lisa Palone

Adrienne Armor

Douglas D. Milton

Tobee Phipps

Todd Goldstein

Sarah Moughty
Kimberly Tabor

Stephanie Ault

Sam Bailey

Catherine Wright

Robin Parmelee

Sharon Tiller

Ken Dornstein

Karen O'Connor

Marrie Campbell

Louis Wiley Jr.

Jim Bracciale

Michael Sullivan

David Fanning

A FRONTLINE coproduction with

© 2000

FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for its content.



ANNOUNCER: This report continues on FRONTLINE's Web site, where you can study the events and policies that have shaped the 40-year U.S.-Cuba confrontation, read the extended interviews with Cuban-Americans, and read what FRONTLINE producer Ofra Bikel has to say about the making of this film. Then join the discussion, see what others thought about the program and share your own thoughts at Or you can send us an email at, or write to DEAR FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, Massachusetts 02134.

Next time on FRONTLINE- they invade our computers.

    EXPERT: Hackers are a force to be reckoned with.

ANNOUNCER: They have shown us just how vulnerable we really are.

    NEWS ANNOUNCER: Auction site e-Bay was knocked out-

    EXPERT: We are at war, and we don't know who we're at war with yet!

ANNOUNCER: Are hackers the problem, or could they be the solution?

    EXPERT: They are seeing the dangers. They are seeing the vulnerabilities. And everyone wants to shoot the messenger.




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