5 Things We Learned From the Elián González Doc, Almost 20 Years After His Story Captured the Nation

Lead Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
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“You may remember me, you may not,” Elián González says early on in the documentary film that bears his name. Chances are you do. His name, after all, became synonymous with the tense relations between Cuba and the United States at the turn of the millennium. In November 1999, five-year-old Elián was found by two Florida residents floating on an inner tube all by himself. His miraculous rescue, the end to a nightmarish journey that took his mother’s life as she tried to make it to U.S. shores, led to a fiery legal battle. His father, who remained in Cuba, wanted his son returned to him. But the boy’s family in Miami, who had left the island following the revolution, fought to keep him in the States. Eventually, young Elián was reunited with his father – a staunch Castro supporter – and taken back to Cuba.

But during his months in Florida, the shy boy became a worldwide news phenomenon. Was he a young boy being robbed of a chance at his American dream? Yet another example of America’s outright hostility towards the Castro-run island? Or was he Cuban-Americans’ Moses, as they called him? Tim Golden’s documentary Elián tries to untangle all of these questions to piece together what happened all those years ago. With interviews with the now 23-year-old Cuban, his father, his family in Miami, and many of the lawyers and government officials who were involved in his case, the doc gives a helpful overview of the conflicting accounts and the warring political factions that turned this family affair into a near-diplomatic nightmare.

Evenhanded in the treatment of its subject matter, Elián strikes a balance between talking heads, unguarded family interviews, and lots of archival footage that helps frame the incident within the larger narrative of Cuban American relations. Having caught the documentary at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, here are five key moments that will surely have everyone talking about young Elián all over again.

Elián screened at 2017 the Tribeca Film Festival.

UPDATE 8/22/2017: Elian airs August 24 at 9 p.m. on CNN and CNN en Español and will be available to stream on CNNgo.


"What happened to me wasn't a movie."

Despite the sensationalism with which Elián González’s story was received, Elián opts instead for a more measured approach. For starters, it gives the then-5-year-old shipwrecked boy a chance to tell his own story. We get to hear him reminisce about his time on the inner tube where he was found and we get insights into how skewed his own narrative became. While a family member, for example, remembers him so happy to be going to school in America, the now 23 year old shuts that down. He never really enjoyed it. In fact, his on-camera remarks about his life in Cuba, his affection for Fidel, and his pride at having been returned home (with many a shot of him shouting “Patria o muerte!”) will surely rankle those who wished he’d stayed in the U.S.


"We saw the image of everything Cuban-Americans felt."

As soon as Elián’s story hit the local news, he became a metaphor for Cuban Americans. Yet another example of the lengths Cubans will go to escape the island. That’s how he became the literal poster boy for the Cuban American National Foundation. The foundation, as we learn in the doc, was the outgrowth of those who’d fled Fidel’s Cuba to Miami and sought to take a hard stance against his regime. Headed by charismatic businessman Jorge Mas Canosa, their political power has come to define American policy on the Caribbean country and it’s one of the reasons why this child’s predicament became a political standoff in the U.S.


"Cuba si! Yankee no!"

As the doc states, how you felt about Elián and his repatriation depends on where you stand with regards to Cuba. As the legal battle waged on, Americans outside of South Florida polled in favor of sending the young boy back to be with his father and grandmothers. But for the Cuban exile community, that felt like a misguided approach, one that would result in the little boy becoming another symbolic victory for Fidel. Seeing images of Fidel cozying up to Elián upon his return, and how outspoken he’s become about Cuba’s revolution (not to mention his distaste for Obama’s remarks during his visit), suggests they may have been onto something. Though González would merely note that it means he ended up where he belongs.


"It was probably the biggest media center I have ever seen in my entire life."

In a world before 24/7 news cycles were a thing, Elián’s story captured the airwaves in a way no one had ever seen. One of the most striking things about this documentary is just the amount of images from home movies and TV reports that help tell the story. In between play dates with Diane Sawyer, photo-ops with family members, press conferences by anyone associated with the case, and including that infamous AP photo that captured the moment when the boy was retrieved from the Miami González household there was no dissociating this story from the way it was depicted in the American media.


"There were 10,000 Cuban-American Democrats who became Republicans post-Elián."

Mas Canosa’s son, Jorge Mas puts it bluntly in the film: the way Bill Clinton and Janet Reno handled the Elián case drove many Cuban Americans away from the Democratic Party and gave the win to George W. Bush in the 2000 election. What might be a too simple takeaway, nevertheless speaks to how central this saga had become in South Florida politics.