Almost exactly two decades have passed since heavily armed agents of the Border Patrol’s SWAT team entered a Miami home in the pre-dawn hours of Easter Eve and seized 6-year-old Elián González from his Cuban-American relations.
It was a capstone to a series of events which many later thought could have cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election, particularly the photo of an agent leveling his rifle at a relative holding the frightened boy.
People had strong feelings in the United States about whether Elián should be returned to his father in Cuba, which broke fairly cleanly along partisan lines, then as now. In Cuba, where there is only one party, it was a slightly different but no less melancholy tale.
We happened to be in Havana working at the same time Elián’s mother, Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez, tried to leave Cuba with her boy and a dozen others in a small aluminum boat, in late November of 1999, making a dangerous passage across the Florida Straits. They were hardly the only ones. We were on the upper floor of a hotel in Havana in a business center with a Cuban friend at around the same time when, in the middle of a clear afternoon, looking north to the sea across the famous Malecón avenue, we saw a rafter heading out for Florida, 90 miles away.
“Look at that,” we said, pointing. “It’s a rafter,” said our friend, shrugging.
The motor of the boat Brotons was in apparently broke down in rough seas and the boat was swamped. Brotons, who did not know how to swim, drowned after setting Elián adrift in an inner tube. He was rescued by fishermen, who turned him over to the Coast Guard, who gave him to immigration services, who located his Florida relations.
His father, in Cuba, said he wanted the boy returned. His other relatives wanted him to stay in the U.S. An international tug-of-war erupted.
In Cuba, the government organized demonstrations, one of which we attended, in Havana, where state workers had been bused in. Fidel Castro addressed the crowd in high dudgeon and led them, from a stage at the top of a jammed side street, in a chant of “Elián, we are with you!”
We wandered several blocks back until we came upon people who were chanting along, but they had changed the words to, “Elián, take us with you!”
In those days there were two television channels in Cuba. There had been one, devoted exclusively to government programing, which could be dreadfully dull; and then the state had added another, which showed mostly pirated Brazilian telenovelas and was wildly popular. We were watching TV one night, on the state channel, with our friend and his mother in their Old Havana apartment, the neighbors’ TVs up and down the block flickering with the telenovela, and we saw a report showing how Elián’s Florida family had taken him to Disneyworld, the American Potemkin villages, which the announcer explained was shamelessly capitalist. Then came the coup de grâce.
Elián’s Florida family had bought him a puppy, in Spanish a cachorro. It was a sleek little black Labrador they named Dolphin.
The TV showed Elián playing with Delfín in the lush green yard of his relations’ Little Havana home. We watched that in the twilight in Old Havana, in the blue glow of an old and much repaired TV, as the announcer explained that this was just the sort of thing gusanos – worms, the name the regime gave Cubans who fled to the U.S. – would do to turn a 6-year-old Communist’s head. And what we will always remember is that tired woman in the last light saying softly and longingly, “Un cachorro ...”