February 2, 2001

Saving Elián

On November 25, 1999, a five-year-old boy was plucked from the shark-infested waters off Florida. He soon found himself at the center of a social and political firestorm that would transfix the nation and rock Miami's Cuban-American community to its core.

Manifestantes en Miami Beach; fotografía de AP/Wide World Photos

On Tuesday, February 6, at 10 P.M. on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE explores the lasting effects of the battle over Elián González in "Saving Elián." With footage from both Miami and Cuba and interviews with participants and observers on both sides of the controversy, the one-hour documentary examines how one little boy became a metaphor for the more-than-forty-year struggle for the future of a nation.

"Saving Elián" widens the scope of the controversy beyond Elián's father, his Miami relatives, and the court procedures that were at the center of so much media attention during the boy's seven-month stay in America. Instead, the documentary examines both the political and psychological impetus behind the battle for Elián and the emotions and motivations of those who influenced the outcome.

"We wanted to take a step back and review the Elián González saga outside of the media commotion that surrounded the fight to keep him in America," says producer Ofra Bikel. "Instead, the documentary explores why Elián meant so much to Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida."

The film also examines the role Cuban-Americans play in both Miami society and American politics, and how the Elián crisis further strained the exile community's tenuous relationship with Miami's other ethnic groups.

"As a community, we came here and we very much made a decision that we were not going to integrate into the mainstream of American society in the sense that other immigrant groups have done before," says Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban-American businessman and community leader. "We didn't come here with a specific desire to become part of the melting pot."

Elián's arrival meant many things to many Cuban-Americans. To some, it was a religious omen foretelling the end of communism in Cuba. For others, it was reminiscent of an earlier pilgrimage undertaken by 14,000 Cuban children in the early 1960s. Cuban parents, anticipating that Castro would abolish religion and close the Catholic schools, sent their children, alone, to Miami in a "rescue mission" called "Operacion Pedro Pan"—Operation Peter Pan.

"That's why Elián is so important," says Father Francisco Santana, a priest at Miami's Lady of Charity Shrine. "Because the [Cuban-American] exile community began precisely by the concept of `save the children.'"

Elián not only rekindled old memories of Cuba and a generation's flight to freedom, he also awakened and mobilized a new generation of young Cuban-Americans, many of whom had never even been to the island nation.

"When I saw that child, I realized that that child could have easily been a younger brother of mine," says Rick de la Torre, whose parents fled Cuba in 1959. " [He] could have been any of the other `Eliáncitos'—it could have been me, if my parents didn't flee communism."

While Miami's Cuban exile community was embracing Elián as a miracle sent to give them hope, ninety miles away Fidel Castro was also embracing the boy as a cause that could re-ignite the revolutionary fervor of his struggling nation. "Saving Elián" includes film footage of some of the many Cuban marches, protests, and rallies organized to show the country's support for Elián's return. On the international stage, meanwhile, Castro publicly demanded that Elián be returned to Cuba within 72 hours. And that, observers say, changed everything.

"It didn't become just a question of `Where should the child live?' or `Where should the child go?'" says Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. "It became now a question of `Fidel wants this.' So now…the Cuban exile community in Miami says, `Well, if he wants the child, he can't have him.'

"It became very quickly," Perez says, "a confrontation that fed into a forty-year struggle between Cuban exiles in Miami and Fidel Castro."

In "Saving Elián," Cuban-Americans defend their fight to keep Elián in the United States as an attempt to protect the boy from being exploited by Castro's Communist regime.

"Really, for us, the child going back, he's not going back to his family," says Cuban-American poet Lourdes Simon. "He's going back to Fidel, right to his hands."

But as the Elián battle intensified, some non-Cuban Miami residents began to feel engulfed by the anti-Castro sentiment swarming around them. "It came to a point where you couldn't say anything about the [Elián] issue if you weren't Cuban," says journalism student Rebecca Medina, whose parents came from Puerto Rico. "Because, basically, if it wasn't going to be the same opinion that the Cuban community shared, they didn't want to hear it. And if they did hear it, we were labeled Communists."

In fact, the battle over Elián González seemed to sharpen a long-unspoken resentment by some of Miami's non-Cuban residents over the significant political and social power enjoyed by the city's Cuban-American community. Cuban-Americans are very successful in local and national political circles—with a powerful Washington lobby credited with helping to pass much of the country's anti-Cuba legislation.

"Cuban-Americans have obtained so many unlikely things from U.S. governments," says Max Castro, a senior research associate at the University of Miami. "…An invasion of Cuba, an embargo that everybody in the world opposes. Why shouldn't they think that they can prevail [regarding Elián] in a presidential election year?"

It is this attitude, observers say, that alienates many people in Miami. "I have felt like an outsider in this city for a long time," says Bruce Whitten, a Caucasian Miami businessman. "It's what they [Cubans] want, or how they feel and nothing else counts. This is Cuba to them, in my opinion…and they're gonna run it as if it were Cuba."

Non-Cubans aren't the only Miami residents to have felt excluded by the Cuban exile community. In "Saving Elián," FRONTLINE speaks with several Cuban-Americans who recount being ostracized—even terrorized—for failing to support the community's hard-line position regarding Cuba and Fidel Castro. Francisco Aruca, for example, tells FRONTLINE that his Miami radio station was bombed for striking a more moderate tone regarding Cuba.

He explains, "The moment you get away from their thesis, you are considered the enemy and they become steamrollers. They want to roll over you, simple as that."

Perhaps most surprising in FRONTLINE's "Saving Elián" are the views expressed by the "Pedro Panners": the children who made that first fateful exodus from Cuba nearly forty years ago. Now in their forties and fifties—successful and grateful for the comforts of American life—the Pedro Panners could be expected to empathize with the story of Elián González and the efforts to keep him in America. Yet when FRONTLINE interviewed a group of these Pedro Panners—each in private—they all confessed to believing that it would be better for Elián to be in Cuba with his father than to be in America without him. When later told as a group that they all felt the same way, these Pedro Panners were stunned to learn they all shared the same view, but were afraid to tell each other.

Says Pedro Panner Frank Avellant: "All along, I thought if I walked down south of 8th Street and said what I told [FRONTLINE], I would have been lynched."

Nevertheless, many Cuban-Americans in "Saving Elián" express sadness and despair at the pre-dawn raid that forcibly removed Elián from the home of his Miami relatives. They also describe a feeling of betrayal: betrayal by their country and betrayal by non-Cubans, who couldn't empathize with their grief. After Elián, these exiles say, relations between Miami's Cuban-American community and other ethnic groups may never be the same.

"Up until [Elián], these people were your neighbors," Rick de la Torre says. "These were the people you shopped with, the people you worshipped with. Now, this line has been drawn down the street."

Cuban-American businessman Carlos Saladrigas agrees. "The Elián case changed forever the exile community," he says. At the same time, however, he acknowledges that the most profound effect of the seven-month ordeal was on
Elián himself.

"You know, he became a pawn in a political game," Saladrigas says. "He got caught in the middle and in the end, everything mattered but Elián."

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