The political battle over Cuban rafter boy Elián González is the focus of new documentary film

The political battle over Cuban rafter boy Elián González is the focus of new documentary film

When the five-year-old was rescued off the Florida coast in 1999 he became the center of an international custody battle that pitted family members against one another and tested U.S. foreign policy at a crucial moment in history. Now 23, González talks in a documentary film about his experience and the changing nature of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Remembering Elián González: the political battle over a Cuban rafter boy. Univision

"You may remember me, maybe not," says Elián González, now 23, describing the international child custody case that he was caught up in 16 years ago.

Aged five, Elián was found floating alone on an inner-tube off the shores of Florida on November 25, 1999. He quickly became a symbol in the political battle between Cuba and the United States, a battle that has torn families like his apart.

"What happened to me wasn't a movie. It was a true story," says González, now 23, staring at the camera.

A new documentary, called Elián, is a timely look back at the six-month saga that gripped the world's attention and trapped the little boy in the middle.

Directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell, with Academy Award winning executive producer Alex Gibney, Elián is in theaters in New York and opens in Miami and Los Angeles June 2.

After González's mother drowned during the voyage to Miami, a legal battle ensued between his father in Cuba, Juan Miguel González, and his relatives in Miami who took him in. Of course, politics got in the way, as the Miami Cubans argued that normal custody rules should not apply and that the boy should not be sent back to the communist-run island.

In Elián, CNN Films explores the question: What became of that little boy?

Lea este articulo en Español

"The story is so well known but neither Elián nor his father have really had the opportunity to tell [their stories] and explore their memories, their understanding and their concerns about what happened, and the impact it had on their families," says producer Trevor Birney.


“You can look at this as an international custody battle, but it’s so much more,” adds Birney. “Up until the point of Elián González’s story, for 40 years Cuban diplomats and American diplomats weren’t on the same side. They almost never talked about solving differences from the same perspective or with same goals. Elián was the first time Cuban and American diplomats were pointed in the same direction, wanting the same thing.”

"Elian: A boy caught between two worlds." This CNN film offers...
"Elian: A boy caught between two worlds." This CNN film offers an intimate portrait of Elian today, now aged 23.

Co-director Tim Golden, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who covered the story at the time for the New York Times, was struck how the Elián saga had been largely forgotten, despite being a seminal moment in U.S.-Cuban relations.

“The Elián saga really marked the beginning of the end of the cold war between the U.S. and Cuba,” says Golden.

Cuba was struggling to survive what was known as the Special Period that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuban American exiles in Miami were also beginning to discover their hardline politics had limits and more voices were beginning to emerge supporting engagement with the communist-run island.

Birney said that when the producers met with González and his family "it was almost the moment they had been waiting for, that they had longed in terms of sharing their memories and their experiences."

Birney and his team went to Varadero, Cuba, three hours from Havana, in 2015, spending several days hoping to speak to González. “We went to the little lakeside bar where Juan Miguel works, and he made us all wonderful piña coladas and spoke to us. I saw this young man walking through a park toward us, and I thought, ‘Oh my god that’s Elián.’ He was on his way to university. He sat down and we chatted, and I said to him, ‘We’re going to make a film, do you want be part of it and tell your story?’ And he said, ‘I’d love to be part of that.’”

Elián González, now 23. The Cuban rafter boy was rescued aged 5 off the...
Elián González, now 23. The Cuban rafter boy was rescued aged 5 off the coast of Florida in 1999 on an inner-tube, setting off an international custody battle.

Like the Truman Show

Elián the documentary owes its origins to President Barack Obama's election in 2008, says Birney. "My wife and I were in Miami and the next morning I saw an article in the Miami Herald that talked about the demography of the Cuban community in South Florida and how it had changed since the crisis of Elián González," he said.

As the Obama administration began relaxing restrictions on travel to Cuba and remittances sent by relatives, the producers realized it was a good moment to look back at the evolution of relations between the two countries through the eyes of González and his family.

Despite Obama's historic visit to Cuba in 2016 and the restroation of diplomatic relations, deep-rooted political tensions still remain. There is also uncertainty over whether President Donald Trump plans to turn the clock back to a more hostile policy. A major point of the film, Golden argues, is to question "whether it really interests the Cuban family in a broad sense - Cubans in Cuba and the Cuban diaspora in the United States - to return to the old ways that President Trump has threatened."


The film weaves interviews with key figures - González, his father, his cousin Marisleysis González and those who rescued him from the sea, Donato Dalrymple and Sam Ciancio - with archival footage, including speeches by Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton.

Birney describes the documentary as "The Truman Show of Journalism," drawing parallels between the media's obsession with the story and the Jim Carrey film about a man who discovers that his whole life is a TV show.

During the saga, TV trucks were parked outside the Miami home of González's uncle, Lázaro González, for months. "It slowly dawned on the family that someone is watching and their lives are being invaded. There’s a sense of ambivalence about being in that situation, but at the same time, people were encouraging them to feed the beast,” Birney says.

At the time of the ordeal, the era of social media had not yet arrived yet. But by the end of the 1990s the 24-hour news cycle was in full swing. The 1995 O.J. Simpson trial provided a glimpse at what that could look like, but Golden says "there had not yet been an international news story of that magnitude, in which the cameras camped in the peoples' yard to constantly record their daily activities."

And yet in spite of the media's fury, the lives of the main protagonists were lost at the time.

To be sure, the benefit of hindsight allows the filmmakers to provide some much needed revisionist history, both political and personal.


It's a story that has come full circle, says Golden. "It begins with the González family divided between the two countries and the role that geopolitics played in that division. And I think that it argues powerfully that this family on both sides wants to heal those divisions."

Additional reporting by David Adams.

The Colombian soldier Mauricio Calvo shares his experience as part of a burgeoning industry of men who travel the world to fight in other people's wars.
Immigrants advocacy groups report 300 shootings aboard the train known as the The Beast. Migrant victims point to security guards hired by the government.
They grew up in Chicago and their husbands, the Flores twins (aka ‘Los Mellizos’), worked for the Sinaloa cartel. The twins later became DEA informants in Mexico who helped bring down El Chapo Guzman. They have written a book, Cartel Wives, telling their story as a lesson to others not to fall for the narco life, and they regret what they put their families through. "Our fathers put on their suit of armor and their badge, and they are going out there on the streets of Chicago,” Mia confesses. “It’s the very same streets that our husbands were flooding with drugs.”
The Rio Abajo bridge was swept away leaving the town of Utuado cut off. Neighbors engineered a pulley system to haul supplies over the river but they wonder when their lives will return to any semblance of normality.
A scene form the new documentary A Long Way From Home about the desegregation of professional baseball.
Actor Eduardo Yáñez was responding to a question about his son at an event in Los Angeles, leaving everybody around him stunned. Reporter Paco Fuentes asked the actor about a GoFundMe page his son posted asking for help to pay for car repairs, rather than seeking the money from his dad. The actor later apologized via Twitter.
Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz reacted to comments on Twitter by President Trump in which he said Puerto Ricans “want everything done for them."
It is estimated that there are almost as many Puerto Ricans living off the island as the 3.4 million that reside there. After Hurricane Maria, almost all communication was lost between those on the island and in the diaspora. Univision sent a reporting team to the island before Maria's arrival. Part of their job now is helping connect families.
Two reporters from Univision News followed the track of Hurricane Maria, starting from the southeast where the eye made landfall all the way to the capital. This is what they saw from the road ...
An "extremely dangerous" Category 4 hurricane, Maria made landfall near Yabucoa in southeast Puerto Rico, causing widespread flooding across the U.S. territory of 3.4 million inhabitants. Maria caused rivers to flood all over the island. This video was taken in Guayama, on the south coast.
After a strong earthquake shook Mexico City, thousands of people evacuated their homes. The epicenter was 7.5 miles southeast of Axochiapan, in the state of Morelos.
Had Irma tracked 50 miles further north along Cuba's coast, the results could have been dramatically different, meteorologists say, causing devastation to the densely populated Greater Miami region. Also by tracking up Florida's west coast close to the shoreline deprived Irma of the warm Gulf water that fuels storms. Here is a compilation of the hurricane satellite images shared by NASA on social media.
The program was established in 2012 by President Barack Obama to protect certain undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Nilsa Huete is an undocumented Honduran immigrant living in Key West, Florida. In the last five months, five of her family members have been arrested by agents from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office. Now she’s fighting against the deportation of her daughter and brother.
Christopher Barker, leader of the 'Loyal White Knights' of the Ku Klux Klan and his wife Amanda Barker discussed their views on President Donald Trump during an exclusive interview for Aquí y Ahora.
That's what Christopher Barker, leader of the KKK's 'Loyal White Knights,' told Univision's late night news anchor in an interview for Aquí y Ahora. "To me you're a ni**er," he added.
México aprueba la Ley de Seguridad Interior pese a críticas dentro y fuera del país
La polémica ley, aprobada este viernes por el Congreso de México tras 15 horas de debates, busca regular el rol de las fuerzas armadas en las calles, para combatir grupos delictivos, y amplía sus facultades para actuar cuando se determine que existe una amenaza a la seguridad interior.
Exlíder del sindicato de maestros de México obtiene beneficio de prisión domiciliaria
Elba Esther Gordillo obtuvo este viernes el beneficio del arresto domiciliario por razones de salud tras permanecer más de cuatro años en la cárcel. La mujer fue detenida en febrero de 2013, a dos meses del inicio del gobierno de Enrique Peña Nieto, y fue acusada de fraude fiscal, delincuencia organizada y lavado de dinero por más de 100 millones de dólares.
La violencia no da tregua en la convulsionada Honduras que sigue sin presidente electo
Con la marcha de las antorchas, promovida por el movimiento "Hondureños indignados contra el fraude electoral", concluyó un viernes violento en las principales ciudades y carreteras del país. Las protestas de apoyo al opositor Salvador Nasralla, que comenzaron tras las elecciones generales del 26 de noviembre, dejan ya al menos 16 muertos.
'Transgénero', 'diversidad', 'feto': la administración Trump le prohíbe a la principal agencia de salud el uso de siete palabras
Una fuente anónima le confirmó al Washington Post que en una reunión con los oficiales del Centro para la Prevención y el Control de Enfermedades, se les pidió evitar en sus documentos el uso de varias palabras relacionadas con identidad sexual y derechos reproductivos.
Este hispano es el primer ganador único del concurso viral HQ Trivia
HQ Trivia es la app viral del momento porque solo puedes jugar dos veces al día y en vivo. Más de 300,000 personas se conectan al juego de 12 preguntas cada edición. Esta semana César Paolini ganó el premio de dinero en solitario. Hablamos con él.
El escultor que muestra a los pandilleros de MS-13 como si fueran trofeos de caza
El artista mexicano Renato Garza ha generado polémica y críticas con sus piezas hiperrealistas en las que se ve a miembros de la Mara Salvatrucha como tapetes. Según él, es solo la materialización de cómo la sociedad los quiere presentar: como bestias que hay que cazar.
SpaceX lanza por primera vez un cohete y una nave reciclados para abastecer la Estación Espacial Internacional
La compañía de Elon Musk completó con éxito uno de sus objetivos, al lograr que elementos de gran envergadura sean reutilizables para abaratar los costos de las misiones. La nave iba cargada con suministros para la EEI.