Elián González, the Cuban boy found clinging to an inner tube near Florida shores who became the center of an international child custody dispute as well as a political battle between Cuba’s late leader Fidel Castro and Cuban exiles in Miami, is set to become a member of the island’s National Assembly after Cubans go to the polls on Sunday.
González, 29, was proposed as a candidate for the municipality of Cárdenas, in Matanzas, where he lives and works as assistant director of AT Comercial Varadero, a food import company run by the Cuban Ministry of the Armed Forces.
Married and father of a 2-year-old girl, González said in an interview with the Juventud Rebelde newspaper that he had been encouraged by the Castro brothers to enter politics and thought Fidel Castro “would be proud” of his nomination. He has sometimes spoken in the past about how Cuba’s population has lost confidence in government institutions.
But in many of his recent interviews with state media about his future role, one way or the other he always comes back to his personal story.
And because Cuba’s electoral system is designed in a way official candidates face no competition and only need a small percentage of the vote to get elected, there’s little doubt that Gonzalez, who as a boy was at the center of one of the most emotional stories in Miami’s history, will become a member of the same government his mother tried to escape.
“Throughout these years, my family has been very important, trying to maintain that simplicity, that humility of always staying in the right place where I should be, not believing that I was different from anyone or that I deserved something better,” he said in an interview with Cuban television station TvYumurí after he was nominated. He also praised his teachers, who he said made him understand that he “was not the star of that story, the star was the people.”
The story he referred to, the story of his life, tore the Cuban American community in Miami apart and divided it from the rest of the country.
González, then 5 years old, was rescued by fishermen on Thanksgiving Day 1999 when he was spotted on an inner tube floating at sea near Fort Lauderdale. His mother, Elizabeth Brotons, who took him on the dangerous trip to flee the island regime, drowned with a dozen other passengers when their small fishing boat capsized. The boy miraculously survived.
In Cuba, his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, wanted him back. But in Miami, some of his relatives believed the boy should stay in the United States. After all, the boy’s mother died trying to get him freedom, the relatives said at the time.
Then politics entered the scene.
After the economic crisis in Cuba in the 1990s known as the Special Period, Castro needed an issue that could revive old ideological battles and reinvigorate his grip on the population. And he seized on the opportunity, quickly making Elián’s return a subject of national priority and the beginning of a yearslong propaganda campaign that would be known as the Battle of Ideas.
In Miami, local politicians quickly made it their mission to resist Castro and support the claims of the boy’s relatives in the U.S. to keep him here. A media frenzy followed in both countries, and Elián became the center of a diplomatic crisis and legal dispute that made headlines around the world. No less dramatic was the middle-of-the-night raid by federal agents on his relatives’ home in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood that put an end to it all after U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ordered that the boy should return to Cuba.
A photograph of the boy’s scared face when a federal agent points his gun in his direction further enraged Cuban exiles. But after seven months, he eventually returned to Cuba with his father after the Miami relatives exhausted all legal pathways to get him to stay.
His life, however, never quite returned to normal. The entire country knew who he was, his face printed on thousands of banners and T-shirts. While he was in Miami, Cuban state workers and students held weekly rallies calling for his return, and a daily television show was dedicated to discussing any developments in the case.
On the island, González received a military education and became a vocal supporter of the Castro brothers, who, after his return to the island developed a close relationship with him and his father, who went from a waiter at a Varadero restaurant to a member of the National Assembly.
Over the years González was frequently seen in public with Fidel and later Raúl Castro. When he graduated as an industrial engineer in July 2016, he read a letter his class sent to Fidel Castro promising to “fight from any trench that the Revolution demands.” And when Castro died a few months later, González said he had been “like a father until he became a friend. And like my father, I wanted to show him everything I achieved so that he could be proud of me.” His Facebook account is full of pictures with Fidel Castro and hashtags like #FidelViveenMí, Fidel lives in me, and #YoSoyFidel, I am Fidel.
In 2020, González announced he was going to be a father of a girl and that he had become a member of the Communist Party.
He has rarely spoken of his family in Miami, but in a 2015 interview with ABC News he said he wanted to visit the United States and was willing to talk to his relatives — if they acknowledged it was wrong to keep him from reuniting with his father.
Donato Dalrymple, 63, one of the fishermen who rescued him at sea and the man appearing in the iconic photo the night of the raid trying to shield him from the armed federal agent, said he isn’t surprised to hear about Gonzalez’s new role. Dalrymple said he noticed something different about Elián from watching him play with his cousins in Miami.
“He was always a leader,” he told the Miami Herald.
For Dalrymple, González’s future as a lawmaker could be a good change for the island nation.
“I live with high hopes,” he said. “I wish him all the best.”
(Miami Herald staff writer Grethel Aguila contributed to this story.)