saving elian

photo of elian in miami
On November 25, 1999 a five-year-old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez,was rescued from the shark-infested waters off Florida. He soon became the focus of a social and political firestorm that would transfix the U.S. and rock Miami's Cuban-American community to its core.

"Saving Elian," produced by Ofra Bikel, explores the deeper meaning of the bitter battle over Elian. With footage from both Miami and Cuba and interviews with participants and observers on both sides of the fight, the documentary widens the scope of the controversy. It goes beyond Elian's father, his Miami relatives, and the court procedures that were at the center of so much media attention during the boy's seven-month stay in America. Instead, it examines the political and psychological impetus behind the battle for Elian and the emotions and motivations of those who influenced the outcome.

Exploring Miami's Cuban exile community, which fought so hard to keep the boy in the U.S., FRONTLINE talks to those who say the rescue of Elian reminded many of their own flight from Communism to the U.S. after Fidel Castro's 1959 Cuban revolution. They also describe how Elian's traumatic sea journey was reminiscent of the "rescue operation" of 14,000 Cuban children in the early 1960s. Cuban parents sent their children, alone, to Miami in "Operacion Pedro Pan" --Operation Peter Pan--because they feared Castro would abolish religion in Cuba and close Catholic schools.

"Saving Elian" also explores how Elian Gonzalez awakened and mobilized a new generation of young Cuban-Americans, many of whom had never even been to the island nation.

"When I saw that child, I realized that that child could have easily been a younger brother of mine," says Rick de la Torre, whose parents fled Cuba in 1959. "It could have been me, if my parents didn't flee Communism."

But while Miami's Cuban exile community saw Elian as a symbol meant to give them hope, FRONTLINE's report shows how ninety miles away Fidel Castro was embracing the boy as a cause that could re-ignite the revolutionary fervor of his struggling nation

"It became very quickly," says Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, "a confrontation that fed into a forty-year struggle between Miami's Cuban exiles and Fidel Castro."

While Cuban-Americans interviewed defend their fight to keep the boy in the U.S to protect him from being exploited by Castro's regime, FRONTLINE shows how the Elian crisis further strained the community's tenuous relationship with Miami's other ethnic groups. Some non-Cuban Miami residents say the Elian battle sharpened long-unspoken resentments by non-Cubans in Miami over the political and social power enjoyed by the Cuban-American community.

"I have felt like an outsider in this city for a long time," says Bruce Whitten, a Caucasian Miami businessman. "It's what they [Cubans] want, or how they feel, and nothing else counts. This is Cuba to them, in my opinion...and they're gonna run it as if it were Cuba."

Perhaps most surprising are the views expressed by the "Pedro Panners"--the children who made that first fateful exodus from Cuba nearly forty years ago. Now in their forties and fifties--successful and grateful for the comforts of American life--the Pedro Panners could be expected to empathize with the story of Elian Gonzalez and the efforts to keep him in America. Yet when FRONTLINE interviewed a group of these Pedro Panners--each in private--they all confessed to believing that it would be better for Elian to be in Cuba with his father than to be in America without him. When later told that they all felt the same way, these Pedro Panners were stunned to learn that they all shared the same view, but were afraid to tell one another.

Says Pedro Panner Frank Avellant: "All along, I thought if I walked down south of 8th Street and said what I told [FRONTLINE], I would have been lynched."

Nevertheless, many Cuban-Americans in "Saving Elian" express sadness and despair at the pre-dawn raid that forcibly removed Elian from the home of his Miami relatives. They describe a feeling of betrayal: by their country and by their non-Cuban neighbors, who couldn't empathize when their Cuban neighbors wept openly in the streets

"Up until [Elian], these people were your neighbors," Rick de la Torre says. "These were the people you shopped with, the people you worshipped with. Now, this line has been drawn down the street."

Cuban-American businessman Carlos Saladrigas agrees. "The Elian case changed forever the exile community," he says. At the same time, however, he acknowledges that the most profound effect of the seven-month ordeal was on Elian himself.

"He became a pawn in a political game," Saladrigas says. "He got caught in the middle and in the end, everything mattered but Elian."

home · analyses · interviews · timeline · discussion
video excerpt · links · readings · synopsis
tapes & transcripts · press · credits
frontline · wgbh · pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
top photo © afp/corbis