Elián González: From Symbolic International Tug-of-War to Cuban Congressional Member

by Madison Thomas
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Cuban politics

Elián González, known for his iconic expressive eyes, remains reminiscent of the young boy who, 23 years ago, became the focal point of strained relations between Cuba and the United States during an international custody battle.

Now 29 years old, González has embarked on a political journey within Cuba. Recently, he assumed a position in the country’s congress, aiming to contribute to his people’s welfare amidst escalating tensions and record emigration between the neighboring coastal nations.

In an exclusive interview with The Big Big News, González expressed his determination, stating, “From my position in congress, I will strive to make Cuba a better country and bring about a stronger nation, which is owed to all Cubans.”

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González has rarely spoken to the media since unintentionally finding himself in the geopolitical spotlight as a young boy. In 1999, at the tender age of 5, he and his mother were aboard a boat carrying Cuban migrants bound for Florida. Tragically, the boat capsized in the Florida Straits, resulting in the loss of his mother and ten others. González, tied to an inner tube, drifted in open water until he was eventually rescued.

Granted asylum under the prevailing U.S. refugee regulations, González went to live with his great uncle, a member of Miami’s Cuban exile community known for vehemently criticizing Cuba’s government. Meanwhile, his father implored then-President Fidel Castro for assistance, leading to massive protests with hundreds of thousands demanding the return of young Elián. Anti-Castro groups in Miami argued for his stay in the United States.

This tug-of-war rapidly attracted global attention, epitomizing the strained relationship between the neighboring countries. Eventually, then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ruled in favor of returning the boy to his father, but González’s relatives refused to comply. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, taken by AP photojournalist Alan Diaz, captured the moment when armed immigration agents seized González in a Miami residence.

González reflected on his past, remarking, “Losing my mother has been a difficult burden, but it has not hindered me when I have had the support of a father who stood by my side.” Today, he is a father himself to a 2-year-old daughter. He currently works for a state company that facilitates tourism, highlighting the divergent path his life has taken since his return to Cuba.

Moreover, he has now embarked on a political career. In April, González was sworn in as a member of Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, effectively serving as a lawmaker in the country’s congress. Representing Cárdenas, a town in Matanzas province, approximately 80 miles east of Havana, González remains connected to the region where he resided before his ill-fated voyage. He continues to reside in the province.

During the interview conducted in Havana’s Capitol, the restored seat of the congress, González, dressed in black pants and a T-shirt, adorned with a discreet braided bracelet on his right hand and his wedding ring on his left, emphasized his upbringing in Cuba. He stated, “Like other young people, I have grown up in Cuba, and I believe that is the most significant aspect.”

For years, his father made it difficult for others to establish close ties with the child. From a distance, one could occasionally spot the young boy playing with peers or accompanying his father to political events. Castro personally visited González on his birthdays.

Over time, González transitioned from being a military cadet to becoming an industrial engineer. As Cuba’s congressional positions are unpaid, he will continue his work in the tourism sector.

The legislative body has faced criticism for the absence of opposition voices and for executing the agenda dictated by the country’s leadership.

González’s tenure as a legislator unfolds amid a historic wave of emigration from the crisis-ridden Caribbean island, as many young Cubans seek a fresh start in the United States, mirroring his mother’s decision.

Simultaneously, the two nations experience heightened tensions. Allegations persist that Cuba harbors a Chinese spy base, vehemently denied by Cuba. In response, Cuba accuses President Biden of maintaining stringent policies established by Donald Trump that target the island, while the U.S. cites the resumption of flights and the facilitation of remittances.

Amidst Cuba’s deepening political and energy crises, González attributes many of the nation’s challenges to decades of American sanctions stifling its economy, echoing sentiments shared by many within the government. While he believes in Cuba’s model of providing free education and healthcare services, among other things, he acknowledges the need for further progress.

Despite the severe prison sentences imposed by Cuban courts, defended by the communist government, González recognizes his people’s right to demonstrate. However, he urges a comprehensive analysis of the underlying causes of the current crises before condemning the state.

In his statements, González also extends respect to the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who, like his mother, have chosen to emigrate. He states, “I respect all those who made the decision to leave Cuba, both in the past and present, just as I respect my mother. My message will always be for those who depart to strive for a status for Cuba, free from sanctions, equivalent to any country worldwide.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Cuban politics

Who is Elián González and what is his current role?

Elián González is an individual who gained international attention during a custody battle between Cuba and the United States. He is currently serving as a member of Cuba’s congress, specifically the National Assembly of People’s Power.

What happened during the custody battle involving Elián González?

In 1999, when Elián González was just 5 years old, he and his mother attempted to reach the United States by boat as part of a group of Cuban migrants. Tragically, the boat capsized, resulting in the death of his mother and others. Elián was rescued and granted asylum in the United States. This led to a custody battle between his Cuban father and relatives in Miami, which garnered significant media attention.

How did the custody battle impact Cuba-US relations?

The custody battle involving Elián González became a symbol of the strained relations between Cuba and the United States. It sparked intense debates and protests in both countries, with Cuba demanding the return of Elián while some anti-Castro groups in Miami argued for him to stay in the U.S. Ultimately, then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ruled in favor of returning Elián to his father in Cuba.

What is Elián González’s perspective on Cuba’s current challenges?

Elián González believes that many of Cuba’s challenges, including its economic struggles, stem from decades of American sanctions. He supports Cuba’s model of providing free education and healthcare services but acknowledges the need for further progress. He also emphasizes the importance of analyzing the underlying causes of the country’s crises before passing judgment on the Cuban government.

What is Elián González’s message to Cubans who choose to emigrate?

Elián González extends respect to those who decide to leave Cuba, just as his mother did. He encourages those who emigrate to work towards a future where Cuba can enjoy a status without sanctions, on par with any other country in the world.

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