It was November 1999. His mother, stepfather and nine other Cuban refugees lost their lives in a rickety boat while trying to cross to Florida. Elian, then 5, managed to hold on to an inner tube for two days. He was plucked out of the water, along with two adult survivors, by Florida fishermen and placed in the care of a great uncle and great aunt, Cuban exiles who fought to keep him in Miami as his mother wanted. But his father in Cuba immediately sought custody.
The debate raged: Does a boy belong with his father even though he would be under the yoke of a communist dictatorship? Or should his dead mother’s final wish be fulfilled — that he live with distant relatives in freedom?
”The question is — and I think the most important thing is — what would be best for the child,” said then-President Clinton. His administration would decide in favor of the “parental bond” and give Elian’s Miami relatives a deadline to hand him over. When the deadline passed, armed federal agents snatched the frightened 6-year-old from the arms of a relative, both hiding in a closet; the moment was captured by an AP photographer and ricocheted around the world.
Now 20, Elian tells CNN in Ecuador, where he is attending a left-wing conference for youths, that he hasn’t suffered any psychological problems but remembers little about his mother. He does know, however, who’s to blame for her death.
“Just like her, many others have died attempting to go to the United States. But it’s the U.S. government’s fault. Their unjust embargo provokes an internal and critical economic situation in Cuba,” says Elian, an engineering student at a military school.
When he was reunited with his dad in Cuba, Elian was used as a propaganda tool by Fidel Castro. But to Elian, Castro is God, he said in a recent interview: