The Cuban Kid – Elian Gonzalez
Thanksgiving day 1999, Sam Ciancio and Donato Dalrumple were enjoying the fishing off Florida’s coast when something caught their eye. Floating in the water was what appeared to be an inner tube with a doll attached but right then their lines tugged and they focused on their fishing poles. When Donato’s fish got away and his line went slack he looked again to the tube. It was then he saw the “doll” move. Screaming at his cousin to bring the boat around he stripped down and dived into the water. Safely back in the boat an exhausted young boy, that the world find out was Elian González, promptly fell asleep in Donato Dalrumple’s tattooed arms.
Taking the boy to US soil Sam and Donato were about to spark one of the biggest custody battles in the US. Reigniting cold war tensions and pitting Elian’s father backed by communist Cuba against Elian’s Miami relatives backed by the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban American community of Miami. Stuck in between was the American Federal government. Elian’s saga would reach a climax with the federal agents forcible removing Elian from his distant relatives’ home. A scene captured by freelance AP reporter, Alan Diaz, in this famous Pulitzer Prize winning photo.
Back in Cuba
she couldn’t get pregnant
--Juana Hortado Demendosa
The story begins before Elian was born, back in Cardenas, Cuba when a young couple Juan Miguel Gonzalez and Elisabeth Brotons fell in love. Elisabeth’s father recounts how she fell in love with Juan at 14 and by 18 the two had married. The marriage didn’t last long yet the two still lived together, even trying to get pregnant after the divorce. Elisabeth had fertility problems, her first 7 pregnancies ending in miscarriages, but then with special medical help on Dec 6, 1993 they had a boy. Taking the first three letters from Elizabeth and the last two of Juan they christened their new child, Elian.
The two shared custody of the child taking turns raising the boy. Eventually the two moved on with their lives, Juan marrying Nelsy Carmenate and Elisabeth starting a relationship with Lazaro Munero until he left for America 1998. He quickly returned, relatives of Munero said he couldn’t adapt to American life, perhaps his love of Elisabeth drove him to take path rarely taken by Cubans, he sailed south back to Cuba. The Authorities arrested him on his return and he spent 2 months days in a Cuban jail. When he was released he continued his job as a taxi driver and planned again to sail north, this time with Elisabeth and Elian.
Making the crossing
Saving enough money he and a partner built a small craft no bigger than a car fashioned out of old aluminum poles, and a questionable engine. In this rickety boat with no seats or a roof Lazaro was bringing not only Elizabeth and Elian, but also Lazaro’s younger brother, father (over 70 years old), and his mother. His financial partner took his entire family: his wife, his parents and his brother, and a neighbor who lived opposite and whose husband was awaiting her in the United States. At the last minute it was decided to take 22-year-old woman, Arianne Horta, her five-year-old daughter Esthefany; and Nivaldo Vladimir Fernandez. All told 15 people where crammed in the boat which depending on the weather would take two to three days to reach Florida.
They set out on November 20th, but had to quickly return when their engine failed. Paddling back to shore, they fixed the engine, and waiting a few days before trying again. Before they set off, Arianne Horta scared by the engine failure episode had decided take her 5-year old daughter to her mother’s home. After fixing the engine they again set off towards America, but by midnight well into their trip the engine had failed. It was here in the rough waters of the Florida Straits that the make shift boat sank. The boat only had a three inner tubes, of the three one went flat. Of the 14 who started the journey only 3 would live, Elian and the two last minute additions to the trip, Arianne Horta and Nivaldo Fernandez.
The worst happens
God wanted him here for freedom
--cousin Marilysis Gonzalez
Elizabeth had left messages for Juan that she was off to Havana for the weekend. When she and Elian didn’t return Juan started to ask around and learned that Elizabeth had taken his son on an attempt to cross the ocean and reach America. Days passed with no news and then seemingly his worst fears where confirmed when reports of bodies washing up on Florida beaches filtered back to Cuba. There was then a ray of hope when news of a boy being pulled out of the water near Fort Lauderdale reached him. It was confirmed to be Elian and on Nov 25 Juan got a call from his son. Elian had told doctors at the American hospital his contact info in Cuba and doctor’s called Juan for Elain’s medical history. Juan was able to talk to his son at the hospital, it was this way that Elian told him how he had watched his mother drown.
Elian was released from the hospital into the custody of Juan’s Uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez, who had lived in Florida for years. Elian’s case quickly became a national, and world spectacle with the Gonzalez family and Elian thrust into the spotlight. Lazaro Gonzalez’s attractive daughter Marisleysis took the role of Elian’s mother and media spokesman. Quickly it became clear that the Florida relatives weren’t going to send Elian back to Cuba, stating that he would be better off in America, that it was Elizabeth’s wish to bring him to America, something she died to make happen. Even if the federal government agreed with the family there was nothing they could do as by law the only person who could speak for Elian was his legal guardian and father, Juan who through out the ordeal maintained that Elian be sent back to Cuba.
Media closely followed the story throughout early 2000 as the case worked it’s way through the court system with the Elian’s Miami relatives refusing to hand over Elian either to the federal government or Elian’s Cuban family. In Jan 2000 Elian’s grandmothers came to try and secure his release but with no results. The INS throughout stuck to its position that only Juan, the boy’s father could speak for Elian. In response, the Miami relatives first got temporary custody of the boy through local Florida family courts and then tried to get 6-year-old Elian an asylum hearing.
In April, 2000 6 Juan arrived from Cuba with his wife and son. Juan’s Uncle Lazaro still refused to hand over Elian to his father forcing Janet Reno the Attorney General at the time to order the Miami relatives to hand over the boy by the April 11. The deadline came and went with the relatives making more and more demands. Negotiations dragged on until things came to a head on April 21th. The American-Cuban community was getting more and more radicalized with people arriving everyday taking about resisting any attempt to seize Elian. Reno who at the time felt she being forced to act while she could, ordered the forcible seizure of Elian from his great-Uncle’s Lazaro’s home.
Police storm the house
Don't move, don't move. Give me the kid.
Donato Dalrumple the fisherman who pulled Elian out of the water and had since become good friends with Elian and his Miami relatives. Donato would often visit the household to play with Elian and talk with the relatives. He recounts what happened just before dawn April 22,”I was in a dead sleep, [when around 5:10AM] … I heard the rustling of what I call the foot soldiers,” he said. “Then you heard screaming and yelling like bloody murder and people screaming, ‘Get down, get down, we’ll shoot.’
“I jumped up when I heard those words and said, ‘Oh, my God.’ Now, Elian was right in front of me and he was screaming. My natural instinct was to run to him and sweep him up in my arms, and I said to myself, ‘My God, where do we go?’
“I ran into the bedroom. … The photographer made his way into the house with the agents. Then one of the guys from the family took him by the back and just threw him into the room where we were, and then, boom, the door slammed.”
In the room with Dalrymple were Elian, Lazaro’s wife Angela, her niece, the niece’s young son, and AP photographer Alan Diaz. Dalrymple tried to get into a packed closet but couldn’t force himself in. Anglea stood defiantly facing the door while her niece hid by the bed. Diaz picked the back wall of the room and they all waited for the agents to find them. Dalrymple recalls:
“I was trying to get into the closet as much as I could, but there was no way to go … So I asked [Diaz], is there a way out of here? Can we do something? And he said, ‘Donato, just relax, there’s no way out. This is it, man.'”
“[outside] You heard everything being trashed. People screaming and the sound of shoosh, shoosh. There was pepper spray in the house.” Then the agents found the door.
“I heard bam, one, then, bam, two, … They were hitting the door with a battering ram. The door broke right in half and came down, and these guys rustled into the room. And the guy who had the gun just like that [gesturing to his chest] says, ‘Don’t move, don’t move. Give me the kid. Give me the kid.’
The next guy had his gun on the other kid.
I said, ‘Don’t hurt the boy, don’t hurt the boy.’ Then there was this lady with like a towel or a blanket or a pillow case or something who came in, … Elian — you’ve seen the face on him — was screaming. … The soldier and the lady snatched the boy and they threw the blanket over him … And then we’re going out. She never said a word that I know of,” [speaking of the female agent, Dalrymple said] “She was like the silent devil standing there.”
The silent devil was INS agent, Betty Mills, who would be later photographed outside the house bundling Elian into a waiting federal vehicle. Inside a plastic I.D. card agent Mills had around her neck was written a comforting Spanish phrase that government psychologists recommended be repeated for Elian. It said, “You may feel very scared right now. Don’t be scared. We’re here to bring you to your Papa. You can trust us. People love you.”
Betty Mills accompanied Elian in the van to the waiting helicopter. After a quick helicopter ride they switched to a Marshals Service jet at the Homestead Air Force Base. Before take off Elian was given a quick medical exam to make sure everything was OK. Mills would later recount how on the flight from Miami to the reunion with Elian’s father in Washington, Elian didn’t say much. He colored, and he played with the Play-Dough that the child physiologists had recommended they provide for him. The boy ate and at one point, fell asleep on her lap.
At 9:20 the family was reunited at Andrew’s Air Force base where they lived in a small house before being taken to the Wye Plantation, an out of the way retreat, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Pictures where later taken of the reunited family with Elian smiling while being held by his father. In Florida Marisleysis Gonzalez angrily denied the photos were real accusing the government of doctoring the photo to show a smiling Elian. Lazaro’s legal team was able to force Juan and Elian to stay in Washington until the Miami relatives exhausted all legal possibilities. On June 1, 2000 the US 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Elian was to young to apply for asylum and that his legal guardian was his father Juan. The Miami relatives took the case to the US Supreme Court but it refused to hear the legal drama and on June 28, 2000 just over seven months after leaving Cuba Elian and his family returned to a hero’s welcome.
Back in Cuba
Even though Castro pledged to make sure the boy led a normal life he routinely shows up at government events always sitting close to the front row near Castro. In an interview with 60 minutes in 2005 Elian stated he viewed the dictator as a father figure and by all accounts Fidel seems to dote on him like a son. Elian has become something of a tourist attraction in his hometown with foreigners always asking locals where he can be found. People usually are directed to the July 14, 2001 inaugurated “Museum of the Battle of Ideas” or the Elian museum.
Juan, Elian’s father, became a national hero for resisting the American capitalist system and was elected to Cuba’s National Assembly, in 2003.
Donato Dalrymple one of the two fishermen who pulled Elian out of the water still gets recognized on the street. The controversy which split the country even split the two fishermen. Sam Ciancio the other man who saved Elian thought he should go to his father and Donato supporting the Miami relatives. The difference of opinion led to a falling-out and they still don’t speak. Donato still runs his janitorial service company and keeps in touch with the Miami González family.
Where are they now?
Absolutely, I could have been killed.
Alan Diaz who took the picture landed a job with staff reporter for the AP. Recounting that night he was locked in the room with Elian and Donato he says, “The minute the first agent broke in, my strobe light hit him in the face.” One of the federal agents in charge of the operation to seize Elian says it was a miracle that Diaz wasn’t shot. Even Diaz thinking back of his actions agrees, “Absolutely, I could have been killed.” Elian’s Miami based relatives, his great-uncles, Lazaro and Delfin González quickly stepped out of the spotlight, their 15min of fame finished. They lead normal lives, Lazaro working as a bus mechanic. Delfin runs a Elian museum and shrine full of memorabilia from the event. They don’t have any contact with their Cuban great nephew, Elian. Marisleysis González the emotionally charged daughter of Lazaro González became a public spokesperson for Elian’s cause. Marisleysis was seen by outsiders as a surrogate mother of sorts to Elian, admits that she hasn’t talked to Elian for some time. Throughout the ordeal she suffered from the stress and was hospitalized for mental exhaustion some eight times. In 2002 she opened the successful Marisleysis Hair Design beauty salon in Westchester at 7383 SW Eighth St. She also wed Richard Moreno, several years her junior. When reporters tried to get a comment on rumors her wedding was in name only González was quoted as saying, “I’m working, I have to hang up now.’”
In 2010 ten years after the raid Elian is 16-years old and happy with his life in Cuba. He is mostly shielded from Cuban and International media but in an rare interview said that he bears no ill will to his Miami relatives. At the 10 year anniversary of his return he gave a statement saying, “This is the place I belong. Here I feel good. Thanks to the help of a big part of the American people and of our people, today I’m with my father, and that is everything.” Elian’s father revealed that the his son is getting good grades and hopes to join the Cuban military.
Same story but in reverse
Arianne Horta the other survivor of the ill-fated boat ride that killed everyone except her, Elian and Nivaldo Fernandez had her own almost parallel custody battle, except her story happened in reverse. She had originally intended to bring her daughter, Esthefany, with her on the boat but at the last minute sent her home to her Cuban home and father. Now in America she is appealing to be reunited with Esthefany but her Cuban family has refused to allow her to go to America.