April 22, 2020

The memory from 20 years ago is etched into the minds of many, American and Cuban alike: an armed man in an olive-drab uniform pulling a scared child away from his family’s outstretched arms. There were many questions that people had—most notably, Why can’t the boy stay in America? and Why are the United States and Cuba at such odds with each other?

In April of 2000, Elián González fled Cuba at the age of six with his mother, Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez. Brotons Rodríguez and her boyfriend died during the journey, having joined the flotilla from Cuba to Florida but drowning in the sea between. Elián miraculously survived, reaching the shores of Florida, where he was placed into the custody of his uncle Lázaro González. What happened next was a custody battle that shaped Cuban-American relations and immigration debates of the next decade.

Cuba became a communist country in 1959 after Fidel Castro led a six-year revolution against a military junta led by the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista. The island nation became a battleground during the Cold War with the tense Cuban Missile Crisis and the infamous Bay of Pigs during the Kennedy administration. Since the 1970s, an embargo has ebbed and flowed with U.S. presidential administrations; tightening in some cases and loosening in others (as in 1999 and 2016, for example, when Major League Baseball was permitted to take part in exhibition games on the island).

The U.S. government had to wrestle with existing treaties regarding refugees under the United Nations and the Cuban Adjustment Act. The latter changed with the adoption in 1995 of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which enabled those attempting to flee Cuba to stay in the United States only if they made it to land; those intercepted at sea en route were returned to Cuba or to a third country.

Jeffrey DeLaurentis MIA ‘78, who was the George S. McGovern Visiting Professor at SIPA in fall 2019, served as U.S. ambassador to Cuba from July 2015 to July 2017. Earlier in his career, as a young political affairs officer in the U.S. interests section of Switzerland’s embassy in Havana, DeLaurentis found himself in the middle of the González saga.

“I was the head of the political-economic section charged with investigating the case,” DeLaurentis told SIPA News. “The first responsibility I had was to determine if the father had a legitimate relationship with his son.”

A relationship was necessary to establish if repatriation was necessary. As applied to minor children, the existing rules take parental rights into consideration, even if the parents are in Cuba. Yet 300 miles to the north, emotions were quite complex.

“In Miami, a converging thought was that the father was pressured to accept the son,” DeLaurentis said. “There is the interesting predicament of the Castro government having to save face for its citizens.”

Cuban Americans felt that Castro could have been pressuring the father to accept his son back. Back in Cuba, sentiments were both manufactured and heartfelt.

“As a teenager, my memory of those times were countless days with the school organizing demonstrations demanding for Elián’s return to Cuba,” said Harold Cárdenas Lema MIA ‘19, a Cuba-born journalist.

“Every child in school was given a set with pictures of him, so we felt we knew him well. In hindsight, there was the intention of the government to politicize the case but also the genuine feeling of Cubans that fatherhood should be protected above politics.”

There was significant divergence in political ideology between the two countries, but some agreement existed.

“I remember when [U.S. Attorney General] Janet Reno supported the decision to send Elián back home, and the polls in the U.S. showed citizen support,” Cárdenas said. “This was a rare time in Cuban politics that people started thinking about common values between both nations. I remember thinking ‘How can the Americans be so bad as they say on TV if we agree on this?’

In June 2000, Elián was sent back to live with his father in Cuba. With Cuban-Americans making up 12 percent of Florida’s voting population in 2000, some experts have suggested that the Clinton administration's handling of González was a significant factor in that year’s historic election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

The precise effects are hard to assess, but between the González matter and the ‘hanging chads’ of that November’s presidential election, Florida remained at the center of the U.S. political universe for many months.

Today, U.S.-Cuba relations remain fraught with conflict. With the alleged use of an acoustic weapon against diplomats in 2017, the Trump administration remains at odds with the Cuban government, blaming its involvement and sending most of the American officials home.

“The last migration agreement we saw in January of 2017 gave the idea that thawing of relations was real, as is normalizing the migratory relationship with Cuba to treat it similar to other countries in the region,” said DeLaurentis.

Moving forward will require concessions on both sides. Traditional views may stand in the way as an impediment.

“A bit of empathy is necessary on both sides,” said Cárdenas. “One needs to understand American values are not so different from Cuban, and the other side needs to have a more humanitarian policy and not make other people suffer because of different political preferences. Dialogue is the only effective agent of change in Cuba right now.”

The ebb and flow of the two countries’ relationship is one of policy and ideology, but Elián González’s story proved that beneath the saber-rattling are the lives of human beings. With refugees and migrants from war-torn and politically unstable countries caravanning across the globe, how much longer will it be before the next Elián González reaches America’s shores?

Daniel E. White MPA ’20