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From Tragedy to a Political Circus

Genre: Biography
MPAA Rating: PG-13
for some language including racial epithets and a scene of sensuality
Runtime: 108 minutes
Our Rating:
Directed by: Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell
Cast: Elián González, Juan Miguel González, Marisleysis González
Review by Jean Lowerison

On Thanksgiving Day in 1999, a five-year-old boy was fished out of the waters between Cuba and Miami when the rickety raft he and his mother were on sank.

His mother died but Elián González, hanging onto an inner tube, was spotted and picked up by two fishermen who happened to be in the area. Elián was taken to Miami, where many of his relatives were waiting.

This should have been a simple story of negotiation between disparate family members about the best place and people to raise the child. In Miami, Elián’s young cousin Marisleysis immediately took the boy under her wing and quickly became attached to him. She (and the Miami contingent) became adamant that Elián should stay in the U.S., as his mother intended.

But back in Cuba, Elián’s father Juan Miguel (who did not know his ex-wife had planned to leave with Elián and her new boyfriend) wanted his son back. A communist in good standing, he appealed to Fidel Castro for help.

Castro, sensing enormous political advantage in sticking it to the yanquis, saw to it that Elián’s case became a cause célèbre, dividing the Cuban and exile communities even more (Cubans in Florida regard themselves as exiles rather than immigrants).

This was just before the 24/7 news cycle became commonplace, but the case still became a huge media circus and an even bigger geopolitical crisis. It was left to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to decide Elián’s fate. She decided, based on U.S. law, that Elián should be returned to his father in Cuba, touching off even greater demonstrations on both sides.

And when the Miami contingent refused to surrender Elián, INS agents were forced to break into Marisleysis’ house and take him, leaving the world with the affair’s most enduring (and horrifying) image of an INS agent in full riot gear pointing an assault rifle at Elián in the arms of Donato Dorado (one of the men who fished him from the sea), who were found hiding in a closet.

The political fallout was assessed this way by Jorge Mas Canosa, head of the Cuban American National Foundation at the time: "There were 10,000 Cuban-American Democrats who became Republicans post-Elián."

Directors Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell juxtapose a great deal of archival footage, (especially of the huge protests on both sides and interviews with the participants in both countries as the legal tug-of-war raged on) with recent interviews of those involved.

This story is better than any whodunit out there. Elián is 23 now, and a recent industrial engineering graduate. He is careful not to blame either side in the incident, but we are left with the sad impression that the family is still divided. Marisleysis says she has yet to even speak with, much less meet her cousin.

Photo Credits: Fine Point Films

Recommended Audience:
Everyone – whether or not you recall the incident