saving elian
interview: sylvia iriondo

picture of sylvia iriondo

She is head of Mothers and Women Against Repression in Cuba, which opposed sending Elian back to Cuba. Members of her group conducted daily prayer vigils near the house of Elian's relatives in Little Havana; some were present when federal agents took Elian in the pre-dawn raid.
Tell me about the day of the raid.

Our group had been there mostly the whole day. We were about to leave when the people who were negotiating, prominent leaders of our community, talked to us and said how hopeful they were. There were ongoing negotiations at the time among prominent leaders of our community and the secretary of justice. We were very hopeful that something would be determined that would insure the best interests of this child and the family reunification. So we decided to stay, in part to help them if they needed any help, and also to tell the crowd what was going on and keep everything calm.

At about 5:15 a.m., we heard feet stomping, and a lot of screams. And one of the group screamed at me and said, "Sylvia, they're coming, they're coming." So we left the house next door to the González' family, where we had been staying part of the time, and we rushed to the yard of the González' family home. We came into the gate and went to the side. We saw all the storm troopers coming in, running with long rifles, with headgear, screaming, shoving, and pushing, and we saw them go to the door and knock the door down. Some of us were thrown to the floors. Others were pushed. And of course all of us were pepper-sprayed, as well as the rest of the people there.

Did you realize what was happening?

At first we didn't understand what was going on. We had been very hopeful. It was Good Friday, and we had been told by the people negotiating that things looked very, very well. So we couldn't understand what was going on. Then we saw all the vans, we saw the storm troopers, and we saw all this violence. And then we realized what was going on. I will never forget the expression of that child as he came out the door, and the screams of that child and the cries of that child as he was being taken by force to the van.

we want to see the people of cuba enjoy the freedoms that we enjoy here.  and that passion and  cause is not going to go away because we are exiles. There was nothing you could do?

No. There was nothing we could do about it. We were pepper-sprayed, we couldn't see, we had difficulty breathing. One of the members of our group fell onto the floor and was unconscious for some time. Her eyes rolling back, her tongue out, and we had to carry her on our shoulders. We called 911 and we were told that we had to carry her two blocks away to Twenty-second Avenue because they couldn't come in. There was another baby in the same building who also had to be rushed to the hospital afterwards because of the pepper spray, and there was a lot of violence. With the amount of pepper spray and the screams, it was a sight that we thought we would never see, especially on a Good Friday, which is such an important date for the Christian religion.

Did you talk with negotiators?

Yes. Yes, we did. In fact, we talked to them, and from there we went with them to a press conference, where they spoke at length of what had been going on while the storm troopers came and rushed in. In my opinion and in the opinion of everybody who was there, there were good-faith negotiations on the part of the people here. They all wanted very much to bring this to a good conclusion--a conclusion that would take into account the best interests of this child.

Why were you there?

We were there mostly for the last two or three weeks in support of the child, in solidarity with the family that had cared so deeply for this child at a time when this child needed it so much. We were there also on behalf of this child's mother. We were there conducting prayer vigils every day. We would have one prayer vigil, and we would come and go. We were praying very, very much that the family could be united without the presence of security guards from Castro's regime or government officials. We wanted that family to be able to come together as a family, and of course, that didn't happen.

What did you think would happen?

We had a lot of hopes for this child to have his case heard in a family court. In fact, when we go back to all the things that happened in this case from Thanksgiving Day, the day in which the child was found afloat in the middle of the ocean, there was a memorandum issued by the Department of Justice through INS that stated very clearly that the case would be decided by a family court.

What our community always advocated was not to deprive the father from parental rights. Our community advocated for a family court to hear all sides and to make a determination based on the best interests of the child. Apparently INS agreed with us on its original memorandum. And what happened next was that, in Cuba, Fidel Castro started staging orchestrated demonstrations and making demands to this administration. And then it was an administrative decision and not a family court matter.

You saw Castro's hand in this?

Yes, of course. This is not a normal custody case, because Cuba is not a normal country. I still have yet to find someone willing to assert that Cuba is not under the yoke of a totalitarian dictator who controls every aspect of a Cuban's life, including children. In our opinion, the father could not speak for the child, because Castro was speaking for the father.

In Cuba, children's rights, at best, are limited. From the time a child is born, he's at the whim of the state. From early childhood through their teens, they are indoctrinated at school, brainwashed. They are made to belong to a group where they are encouraged to denounce their parents and their families if they do not agree with the official doctrine of the communist state. They are sent in their teens to fight battles and wars, communist wars, far away from their families. They're also sent to farms very far away from their families to work in labor camps.

in that child we saw the pain of the cuban children. in that mother we saw the sacrifices of thousands of cuban mothers throughout 41 years of oppression. Is it possible that Elián's father really wants him to return to Cuba?

Yes. There is that possibility. I don't think so, but there is that possibility. That is why it was so important for a family court to have heard all the sides to be able to ascertain the truth. INS says that, because they interviewed the father twice in Cuba, they felt satisfied that the father was saying the truth. We have reports to the contrary. Some reports are accounted by people who knew the father before, that the father knew that the child was leaving with his mother, that the father wanted also to leave Cuba. Now what happens? Everybody who dares to speak different to Fidel Castro or to what the regime wants to hear in Cuba is either incarcerated, executed, or sent into exile. Once Castro took control of this situation, the father could no longer speak on behalf of that child.

The fact that the father did not come--the fact that five months went by without the father coming to Miami to see his son--tells a lot, in my opinion, about who controls what in Cuba and who controls the father. Any normal father would have immediately come to be by his son's side. And even this father, in a taped interview . . . said that he had lost nothing in Miami that he had to come for. The only thing he had in Miami was his son. And if he had been free to do what any normal father would do, he would have immediately come here.

Did the non-Cuban community understand the meaning of Elián's story?

It is very difficult for those of us who have the privilege to live in a free society to begin to understand what went through Elián's mother's mind when she made this desperate attempt. What would make a mother risk everything--her life and the life of her children--to give them a chance at freedom? It is very difficult unless one has experienced it and one knows what it is.

But for us, Elián 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. It is still fresh in our minds; all the testimonies of the witnesses that saw their children drown at the hands of Castro's gunboats on March 13, 1994. These people, under the orders of that regime, took children, including a three-month-old baby, from the mothers' arms, and threw them into the dark sea at night. It is very difficult to understand, but in south Florida, we've seen many images. We've heard many testimonies of many crimes committed against the Cuban family by this man.

What was the silent non-Cuban majority thinking?

Many of them did not know the reality of parental rights. If you tell me that a mother of a child dies and there's a surviving father, and ask, "Who is entitled to have the custody of that child?" It's black and white. I will tell you, "Yes, the father is entitled, all other things being equal."

But there were so many things here that were not normal, that were not properly explained or given the opportunity to be explained. The circumstances were not the same as any normal custody case. And that is why we felt so strongly that the child needed a day in family court where the father could come and assert his rights. We are turning this child over to the custody of Fidel Castro and the regime. Not to the father, but to Fidel Castro and the regime. At least when the child was here, the child could be visited by a lot of people. Over there, not even the family that cared so much for the child here has been allowed to visit this child.

People are impatient.

We live here, but we were forced to come here by the circumstances in our homeland. We are very grateful to this country and we have raised our families here, and we have made significant contributions to our community. However, we have a cause, and we have a passion. We want to see our homeland and the people of Cuba enjoy the freedoms and the rights that we enjoy here. And that passion and that cause is not going to go away because we are exiles. We came here; forced because our parents didn't want us to be brainwashed in what was happening in Cuba. Many of us have come into exile. Two million. Two million Cubans came into exile. But we have a cause, and we feel very strongly about that cause. That cause is what any people in any free society wants, which is freedom, which is fundamental rights, which is justice. None of those are existent in Cuba, and we will continue the struggle until we see the people of Cuba enjoy those freedoms and those rights.

What was the hope?

There was an agreement that had been already signed by the González family here, whereas the parties would agree to live in a private compound, the same compound, separated, so there could be a family reunification that would insure that the best interests of the child would be paramount.

But if Elián's father didn't want that?

Then it would have been that decision. It would have given way to the resolution of this matter in a much better way than what happened with that raid that night, and that violence, and forcing that child to leave that home that way, with so much emotional distress. I really believe that it would have been the family reunification. They would have been able to come together as a family, and I really believe that that would have been a resolution that would have taken into consideration the emotional well being of the child and the child's best interests. Whatever happened, we would have abided by that, and we will abide by the rule of law also. But it would have been the right path. Here we had a lot of pressure coming from Fidel Castro and the regime in Havana, and here we have in this administration a policy of appeasement with the Castro regime. And in the midst of all this, there were good-faith negotiations going on. Why the raid? Why the violence? Why not do it the most prudent way for that child?

Why was it so traumatic to the Cuban-American community?

Because in that child, we saw the pain of the Cuban children. Because in that mother, we saw the sacrifices of thousands of Cuban mothers throughout 41 years of oppression. Because we saw in this case the family division that this system and this dictator has instilled in our homeland. We saw all the pain and all the suffering of 41 years, and it became a very good thing for us. The suffering is still going on. The pain is still being inflicted. And this child represented all that pain, all that suffering, and all those things that have been done to my people and to my homeland for 41 years.

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