The Event: Asylum petition and legal custody battle of a young boy who dramatically escaped drowning during his mother’s attempt to reach the United States on a small boat ignited a political feud
Date: November 25, 1999-June 28, 2000
Significance: What may have been the world’s most closely watched custody battle became a cause célèbre that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, strained U.S.-Cuba relations, and had future political repercussions.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1999, a five-year-old Cuban boy named Elián González was found clinging to a rubber inner tube floating off the coast of South Florida. Five days earlier, the boy had left Cárdenas, Cuba, on a seventeen-foot boat with his mother and twelve others hoping to reach the United States. When the vessel sank during a storm, Elián and a young couple were the only survivors.
After the U.S. Coast Guard turned Elián over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), INS agents paroled Elián to the family of his greatuncle Lázaro González, who were living in Miami’s Little Havana district. Meanwhile, Cuban president Fidel Castro charged that the boy had been “kidnaped” and demanded that he be returned to his father in Cárdenas. Castro threatened that if Elián were not returned to Cuba within seventy-two hours, he would cancel the U.S.-Cuba negotiations on migration that were scheduled to be held in Havana. Massive Cuban protest rallies were staged daily in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration rejected Castro’s ultimatum and declared that a Florida family court would rule on Elián’s custody. However, that plan was reversed on December 9, when Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that Elián’s fate would be settled by the INS itself. The U.S.-Cuba migration talks were then held on December 13, as originally scheduled.
Six days afterward, the U.S. government ended a six-day hostage standoff in a Louisiana jail by secretly negotiating with Cuba to settle the deportation demands of six criminals who had arrived in Florida during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. The return of Elián was speculated to be part of the deal. Two weeks later, INS commissioner Doris Meissner rejected a political asylum petition filed on Elián’s behalf and Attorney General Janet Reno upheld the right of Elián’s father to have custody. The great-uncle of Elián who had received temporary custody of Elián in state court then challenged the INS ruling in federal court.
On April 12, 2000, Reno ordered the Florida relatives to surrender Elián. The family defied her and obtained an injunction keeping the boy in America. Ten days later, Reno authorized a predawn raid by 151 heavily armed federal agents who battered in the door of Elián’s relatives’ home and seized him. The boy was then reunited in Washington, D.C., with his father, who had arrived in the capital city two weeks earlier.
Havana taxi passing a public poster calling for Elián González’s return to his homeland in early 2000. (AP/Wide World Photos)
On June 1, the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the INS had acted properly in denying Elián asylum but ordered that the boy remain in the United States pending the appeal of his great-uncle’s case. Three weeks later, the court reaffirmed its decision, which was challenged by the Miami family in the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26. Two days later, the Court declined to intervene, and Elián and his father immediately returned home to a hero’s welcome in Cuba.
The Clinton administration’s handling of the González case greatly angered the large and strongly anti-Castro Cuban American community in Florida. When Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, ran for president in November, 2000, Florida’s Cuban Americans voted heavily against him. Their votes may have cost Gore the presidency. He lost narrowly, and the election hinged on Florida. Two years later, Reno ran for governor of Florida and lost in the primary.
In 2003, Elián’s father, whom Castro had decorated as a national hero, won a seat in Cuba’s National Assembly after running unopposed. Elián frequently appeared at political rallies with Castro, whom he called a friend and “father.” A museum was dedicated to Elián in his hometown and he is portrayed on a statue in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. In 2008, Elián joined Cuba’s Young Communist Union.
Antonio Rafael de la Cova
See also: Cuban immigrants; Due process protections; Families; Florida; Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.; Little Havana; Mariel boatlift; Miami; Presidential elections; Supreme Court, U.S.; Washington, D.C.