More than two decades after he was found clinging to an inner tube in the Florida Straits, Elián González is in his most high-profile role since the bitter custody battle that sent him back to Cuba.
On Monday, Cuba’s National Electoral Council said all 470 candidates for the island’s National Assembly – González included – had been approved by voters. More than 89% of voters in González’s hometown of Cárdenas voted for him, officials said.
There was little doubt about the end result; the candidates are pre-selected and present themselves without opposition. And being a legislator in Cuba does not necessarily mean having a lot of power. Legislators only meet a few times a year, invariably support government proposals, and don’t even get paid.
But González’s new position signals that he will be more visible at a time when the Cuban government badly needs recognized representatives abroad, as well as among young Cubans who are leaving the island in record numbers.
“I’m someone the American people know and I can help bring the American and Cuban people together and not just the people,” González, 29, now bearded, told CNN.
“Let our governments get along and remove all barriers between us. Our country has no sanctions against the United States.
González spoke to CNN after going to vote Sunday with his wife and their two-year-old daughter in Cárdenas, which, like many small towns in Cuba, has been ravaged by an economic calamity: tougher US sanctions, slow reforms by the communist-led government, a pandemic that scared off tourists, and inflation that made state salaries nearly worthless.
Having a daughter, González said, gave her a new perspective on the decisions made by her own father Juan Miguel when in 1999 Elián’s mother drowned after trying to take her away with a group of migrants on the dangerous boat trip through the Florida Straits.
“It helped me understand my father,” he says. “It made me more sensitive. It helped me understand how all Cubans feel who are separated from their families and fathers who are not able to give all the attention and things their children want.
After being rescued, González was placed with relatives in Miami.
News of his miraculous survival led many in Miami’s anti-Castro exile community to argue that González’s mother’s wishes should be honored and the boy should stay in Florida.
The dispute has inflamed Cold War-era passions, with then-Cuban President Fidel Castro leading protests demanding Elián’s return outside the US Embassy in Havana, and Cuban leaders in exile swearing that they would not allow the boy to return to live under a dictatorship.
Finally, after Elián’s father, Juan Miguel, traveled to Washington D.C., US courts upheld his claims to reunite with his son.
A nighttime raid on his relatives’ Miami home by armed federal agents sparked riots in the city and returned Elián to his father. When the United States Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case, Elián and Juan Miguel returned to the island.
In Cuba, the now famous González and his family lived a not quite normal life. Fidel Castro came to the boy’s birthday parties in Cárdenas and the family had bodyguards. Elián went to a military school and studied engineering.
When he gave infrequent interviews, he expressed his support for the revolution, which many in Miami said was evidence that Elian had been brainwashed and should never have been allowed to return to Cuba.
“At 29, he is a show pony for Cuba, as many exiles feared,” said an opinion piece published by the Miami Herald Editorial Board in February. “Many historic Cuban exiles in Miami will look away from this news with heavy hearts.”
Even though González has grown up and moved on, the anger between those loyal to the revolution and the Cuban exiles forced off the island still burns hot.
At a World Baseball Classic game in Miami in March that, in theory, was meant to bring different countries together around a common love of the sport, exiles mocked Cuban players on the field.
Havana officials responded that the exiles were “worms,” an epithet Fidel Castro threw at Cubans leaving the island.
More than sixty years after the Cuban Revolution, with the island nearing economic ruin and the exiles no closer to returning home, it’s hard for both sides to truly believe that they are earn.
González is perhaps the only Cuban who has been inside the centers of power in Miami and Havana, seeing how those who run Cuba, and those who have lost it, think and operate.
Although he was thrust into the middle of this deadly standoff, González said he held no grudges, was grateful to the Americans who helped him get home, and hoped reconcile with relatives in Florida who had tried to prevent his return.
And as the rare Cuban who has left and returned, he hopes that the exodus of Cubans currently leaving the island can also see a future in their homeland.
“What we want one day is for Cuban exiles to no longer be exiled, to return home,” González said. “When the young people who left are ready to work for Cuba, the well-being of Cubans goes beyond a political party and beyond ideologies,” he said. “Our doors are open to build a better country, which is what we need.”