The Elian Gonzalez affair refers to a controversial custody case of a Cuban boy known as Elian Gonzalez. Elian had managed to survive a boat accident which resulted to the death of his mother as they attempted to get into the US illegally in November 1999. This controversial case brought to light concerns about the US immigration and family laws, the US-Cuba relations the Cuban American community in relation to economic, social and political issues in Cuba (Elian Gonzalez Biography, 1993).
Elian Gonzalez was traveling with his mother to the US but the failure of the boat and poor weather conditions led to the capsizing of the boat. The accident left all the passengers dead except Elian and two other survivors. After Elian and the survivors were rescued, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INC) placed the boy under the care of his paternal relatives who lived in Miami. Although the relatives sought to keep Elian in the US, Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, demanded that the boy return back to Cuba.
This resulted to a custody row that had the father and the paternal relatives compete for the custody of the boy. The Cuban American community, the media, political leaders and some US bureaucracies got entangled in the row. After heated debates in the political circle and a legal battle in the early part of 2000, Elian returned to Cuba with his father. This paper will discuss the Elian Gonzalez affair and how politics, the media, US bureaucracies, the US judiciary and the Cuban American community got entangled in the affair.
Discussion The custody battle concerning Elian Gonzalez dominated the United States and Cuban media during the early months of 2000. Elian Gonzalez, a five-year old Cuban boy had left Cuba in company of his mother and his mother’s boyfriend for the US in search for a better life. Illegal immigration of Cubans into the US was promoted by the desire to seek a better life in the US. As compared to Cuba, the US seemed to provide the immigrants with better social and economic conditions.
The Cuban economy had been experiencing problems since 1980s due to the US embargo that it imposed on Cuba in efforts to pressure Castro’s administration to embrace democracy and contain communism (Eire, 2003). To the US, Cuba had proved to be a threat to US security during the Cuban Missile crisis. As a result many Cubans, the US presented them with new opportunities to improve their lives and provide their children with a good life. This was no exception for Elian’s mother who took the risk of traveling in a small boat to get to the US.
Although many illegal immigrants managed to get to the US without being apprehended, other who were arrested were deported back to Cuba . It is believed that the failure of the boat engine coupled with poor weather led to the capsizing of the boat. Unfortunately,Elian’s mother and other passengers drowned to death except for Elian and two other survivors who managed to float at sea on an inner tube for hours before they were rescued by fishermen who handed them over to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service officials(INS).
The rescue of the Elian and the two survivors received the attention of the media, marking the beginning of the entanglement of the media in Elian’s affair. After receiving treatment in the hospital, Elian was handed over to Lazaro Gonzalez, his paternal great uncle who lived in Miami. Together with the other relatives, Lazaro expressed their interest in keeping the boy in the US. However, this was rejected by Elian’s father and relatives back in Cuba. The events that unfolded after this attracted great attention of the media on the case. For about six months, the custody row became the focus of the US as well as Cuban mass media.
Reports and debates in the media focused on the political and social issues that surrounded the matter. Although the attention of the media on the case began with the rescue of the boy from the sea, the great attention of the media on the case during the early period of 2000 was increased by the involvement of the US and Cuban governments, political personalities as well as the Cuban American community in the affair. The public sympathized with Elian who had been rescued clinging onto an inner tube off the coast of Ft. Lauderdale in Florida on November 25, 1999.
As the custody battle between Elian’s father and relatives in Miami continued, various members of the public differed on which was the best option for the well being of the boy. While some considered it logical to have the mother’s dream of providing Elian with a good life in US by having the boy live with his relatives in Miami, others were convinced that it was good for the boy to live with his biological father. However, the sending of a note by the Cuban government to a US mission in Havana to request for Elian’s return to Cuba attracted the attention of the media and the public in the case.
Elian became the centre of debate in the public and the Cuban American community especially in South Florida. The affair on the surface was about family and immigration laws in the US while beneath the surface, it became a political crisis between the US and Cuban governments. In relation to law, the affair triggered heated debates on how the case would have been handled effectively. For instance, the question of whether Elian should stay in the US or return back to Cuba became the issue of discussion in the public. The disagreement between Elian’s father and his relatives in Miami made the case even more interesting.
Although Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian’s father, made a request that Elian return to Cuba, the request was met with great resistance from his relatives who were taking care of Elian. Together with a legal team and some influential members of the community, the relatives on January 7 filed a request for political asylum of Elian. The family wanted Lazaro Gonzalez, one of Elian’s relatives living in Miami to be granted custody as the boy’s guardian. This disagreement made it necessary for the media to continue focusing on the case.
The legal wrangling that was witnessed about the Elian Gonzalez case involved numerous bureaucracies within the US government. The bureaucracies included the Immigration and Naturalization service, the State Department and the Attorney General’s Office. These government agencies were involved in the case in efforts to resolve the custody issue . For example, because the Elian issue was transformed into legal dispute, Elian’s relatives living in Cuba intervened in the matter. For instance, Elian’s grandmother and mother in two different cases flew from Havana to the US in efforts to have Elian returned back to Cuba.
Disagreements between Elian’s father and relatives living in Miami led to negotiations with the Attorney General which were unsuccessful. Although the 11th Circuit Court judge had granted emergency custody of the boy to Lazaro Gonzalez, the rejection of a family court jurisdiction by Attorney General Janet Reno in January 12 made it necessary for the Gonzalez family living in Miami to file a case in the federal court. After the US government in January 28 requested for the dismissal of Elian relatives federal lawsuit, the US District judge on March 9 dismissed the political asylum lawsuit.
As a result, Julian Gonzalez meeting with the Attorney General Janet Reno in April 7, 2000 resulted to an announcement that the US officials would transfer the custody of the boy to his father. Despite the fact that in April 19 the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeal blocked Elian’s return to Cuba after granting a request that had been filled by his Miami relatives, Elian’s reunion with his father was witnessed on April 22nd after US federal agents in a pre-dawn raid seized Elian from his Miami relatives’ home (A Chronology of Elian Gonzalez saga, 2010).
The raid was criticized by Elian’s Miami relatives and their supporters. Many supporters belonged to the Cuban American community in South Florida who considered it better for Elian to remain in the US rather than return to Cuba. On the other hand, some Americans held the opinion that Elian’s father should have been given custody of Elian . Eventually, Elian and his father returned back to Cuba two months later after court producers were completed. They returned home on June 28th, few hours after the US Supreme court rejected efforts by Elian’s Miami relatives to keep him in the US.
These events indicate how the US judiciary was involved in the Elian Gonzalez’s affair. The attention of the media in the case was unprecedented and it was clear that no incident of illegal immigration had attracted such attention from the media. This is because the Elian Gonzalez affair was transformed into a morality play where the public took sides, the US- Cuba relations were affected and Cubans in Cuba and those in the US were divided. For example, the case led to emotional charge that fueled emotional reactions among citizens in Cuba and US.
Public opinion polls results that focused on how the case should have been handled were presented in the media. Differences between Cubans in Cuba and those in Cuban American society was evident when Cuban Americans complained on how the issue was handled. Back in Cuba, many citizens supported the returning back of Elian in the country. While the return of Elian Gonzalez to Cuba was celebrated by huge crowds at Jose Marti International Airport, members of the Cuban American community who supported Elian’s relatives living in Miami criticized how the case was handled.
Divisions in the American society about the affair was also witnessed when some Americans across the nation supported the reunification of Elian and his father while others argued that Elian’s stay in the US would fulfill his mother’s dream of providing him with a good life in the US. For those who supported reunion of Elian and his family back in Cuba, the members of the Cuban American community showed fanaticism when they made attempts to oppose and dismiss the US law during the legal battle witnessed in relation to Elian’s custody.
The Elian Gonzalez case was an indication of the absence of coordination structures as well as the presence of power vacuum at the US high level decision making especially in the National Security Council. For example, the case confirmed the fragility of the bilateral relations structure. Although the Elian case seemed to be a clear cut case of parental rights and immigration policy, it became a major issue of discussion during political debates when some US politicians in Congress and those in the presidential campaign trail got involved.
In addition, the Elian affair resulted to the splinter of the Cuban American right wing with the hard-line members forming the Cuba Liberty Council (CLC). The split of the leadership of the Cuban American Florida community into CLC and the CANF (Cuban American National Foundation) defined demographic change that affected their political opinion. The Cuban American National Foundation had been supported by successive US administrations for decades and was expected to exercise virtual veto power over the US policy towards Cuba (Fernandez,2000).
The departure of Elian therefore left the right-wing Cuban exiles demoralized when their goal to have him remain in the US failed. For example, after Elian and his father left for Cuba, only a small number of protesters from the community came out to protest as compared to the large number of the protesters that had been recorded in April when the INS agents raided the Miami relatives’ residence to take Elian away. Politics in the US and Cuba were influenced by the huge campaigns that were coordinated and held by anti-Castro Miami-based Cuban exiles who aimed at preventing the return of the boy back to his father in Cuba.
The Elian affair was also a clear indication of how irrational and intractable the US-Cuban relationship had become and the entanglement of a young child in politics that was beyond his control has been compared to the Operation Pedro Pan (Torres, 2003). The case exposed deep divisions among the Miami residents due to the fact that although some residents especially those from the Cuban American community protested in favor of having Elian stay in the US, others agreed that the boy had the right to return to his father in Cuba.
The affair also confirmed how measures that have been put into place to improve the Cuban-American relations worsened the situation. In addition, the events that unfolded during the affair showed how the US policy toward Cuba has become vital for the interests of groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). The organization had become an influential Cuban American and Latina lobby organization in relation to foreign policy and political issues in Cuba and the US. Established in 1981, this group of Cuban American promotes the Cuban American interests.
Elian’s individuality during the affair became a representation of both political and social agenda. For example, Elian’s story brought to the forefront issues of the US – Cuba sanction policies and immigration. The Elian predicament also shed light on perpetual issues that have existed in the history of US immigration and the immigration policy in the US that had some short comings. Furthermore, the Elian’s plight expressed an identity crisis of the Cuban-American community in Florida. This identity gave great importance to the Cuban American community around the family, communism, nation and religion framework.
Although the custody battle of Elian was just a fair simple matter, it was transformed into a complicated matter by the presence of multinational identities and politics. The lasting effect of the Elian Gonzalez affair was that as the society develops new cultural custody landmarks, the leadership had failed to develop new social and immigration policies. In relation to economic matters, Elian Gonzalez case showed how the second generation of Cuban Americans has differed with the parents’ generation on economic and political issues in Cuba (Weiser, 2002).
Conclusion The Elian Gonzalez affair sparked a political battle in the US after a custody row attracted great attention from the Cuban American community, the US and the Cuban American governments, US bureaucracies and immigration and family law policy makers. The events that unfolded following the rescue of Elian Gonzalez ignited a custody crisis that ended with Elian Gonzalez return to Cuba with his father. During this time period, many Cubans were moving into the US illegally in search of a better life.
The Cuban American community also got involved in the case, with many protesters demanding that the boy remain in the US while other citizens across America supported the granting of custody to the father . Although the Miami relatives of Elian and their supporters considered the case to have been handled poorly, others supported the granting of child custody to Elian Gonzalez’s father. References A Chronology of Elian Gonzalez saga. Accessed on May 21,2010 from www. pbs. org/wgbh/pages/frontline/… /elian/etc/eliancron. html Elian Gonzalez Biography/. 1993. Waiting for Snow in Havana, Cuba and the Politics of Passion.
Accessed on May 21, 2010 from www. jrank. org/cultures/pages/3920/Elian-Gonzalez. html Eire, C. 2003. Waiting for Snow in Havana. New York: Free Press Fernandez, D. 2000. Cuba and the Politics of Passion. Austin: University of Texas Press Torres, M. 2003. The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children, and the Promise of a Better Future. Boston: Beacon Press Weiser, S. 2002. Celebrity, Politics and Public Life. Elian Gonzalez and “the purpose of America”, Nation, Family and the Child-citizen. Accessed on May 22, 2010 from; www. learcenter. org/pdf/Banet-WeiserNotes. pdf
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