Amid volatile U.S.-Cuba relations, film revives Elián's story

Elián Gonzalez grows into icon of emotional U.S.-Cuba conflict

MIAMI – Around the world Elián Gonzalez is remembered as the 5-year-old boy who was trapped in the middle of an ideological war. Discussions about his fate divided families in both the United States and Cuba.

Nearly two decades later, the 23-year-old college graduate hasn't been forgotten. At a time when the U.S. is again debating its relationship with the Communist island, a two-hour film on the life of Elián premieres Thursday night. Tim Golden, the film's director, met with him several times. 

"Elián’s story is a powerful reminder of how ordinary Cubans in both countries have so often been trampled in the geopolitical battles between Washington and Havana," Golden said in a statement. 

In Miami's Little Havana, the story of the boy whose Cuban mother gave her life in the Florida Straits to give him a better future in America still feels like an open wound. For many Cubans in Miami, watching Elián grow into a supporter of a Communist regime, felt like watching him betray the memory of his mother's sacrifice.

In Havana, he is the boy who moved the late Fidel Castro to stand behind a father in a custody battle against the powerful "yumas," Cuban slang for the Americans. A sign in front of Elián's grandmother's home says he was rescued from the "Cuban-American mafia." 

Elián's parents, Juan Gonzalez and Elizabeth "Eliza" Brotons, divorced before in May 1991 -- before he was born. They continued seeing each other, and Brotons suffered seven miscarriages before giving birth to Elián in 1993. They were co-parenting when she fell in love with Lázaro Munero.

Munero got a taste of life in the U.S. in 1998, but relatives in Miami said that he missed Brotons and went back to Cuba. Authorities intercepted his clandestine return at sea and he ended up in a Cuban prison for about two months. Once he was freed, he returned to her arms and was able to persuade her to risk her life. 

Gonzalez said he got news that his ex-wife and their son, Elián, had vanished from their apartment in Cárdenas Nov. 22, 1999. There were signs that they didn't have plans of coming back. Munero and Brotons would later disappear in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Arianne Horta-Alfonso, 22, took her 5-year-old daughter Estefani and joined her boyfriend Nivaldo Fernández. The 33-year-old married man left a job at a resort to start a new life with Horta-Alfonso in the U.S. They would be the only two adults to survive the deadly voyage. 

Munero's two brothers and his parents, Rafael and Marielena Garcia, were also among the 14 who jumped into the 16-foot aluminum boat that would not resist the stormy weather. When the boat's obstreperous 50-horsepower motor forced them to return for repairs, Horta-Alfonso decided to leave Estefani behind.

Elián remained on the boat with 12 others. When the boat began to fill with water, Munero placed Elián in a Russian truck-tire inner tube. Horta-Alfonso and Fernández washed up on the beach at Key Biscayne Nov. 25, 1999. Fishermen rescued Elián shortly after. He suffered minor cuts and dehydration. 

Authorities recovered seven bodies. Three bodies vanished in the 5-foot waves. The war over Elián began while the boy bonded with Gonzalez's 21-year-old cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez.

The legal dispute ended with an image no Cuban-American in Miami will forget. Federal agent Jim Goldman pointed a rifle in the direction of Elián during a raid, after Attorney General Janet Reno ordered his return to Cuba before April 13, 2000.

Elián was reunited with his father at Andrews Air Force Base. He grew up in Cárdenas with a stepmother and three stepbrothers, and he graduated from the University of Matanzas last year. Did the Castro regime use him as a pawn to appear victorious against their perceived adversaries in Miami? In the film, he said his father wouldn't have allowed it. 

The two-hour film airs at 10 p.m., Thursday, on CNN. 

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