[OP-ED]: Documentary ‘Elián’ Brings Back Painful Memories for Cubans
“Elián,” a recently released documentary about the saga of Elián González, the little Cuban castaway that became a worldwide cause célèbre 17 years ago, is bringing back painful memories of the Cold War-induced bitter political battle between South Florida Cuban-Americans and Cubans on the island. At a time when President Trump seems poised to reverse Barack Obama’s measures and go back to a Cuba policy of hostility and irrationality, the film becomes even more distressing.
As many of you will remember, the child’s mother perished when the boat she had boarded with her son attempting to reach the U.S., capsized. Elián was rescued by fishermen and taken to Miami, where the 5-year-old was used as a political pawn by those trying to score a propaganda victory over the Cuban government. After five surreal months of political circus, Elián was reunited with his father and returned to his home in the city of Cárdenas. I was there reporting on the momentous occasion for the New York Daily News.
Hoping it will be of interest for Al Día News readers, I am sharing excerpts of a deeply personal column I wrote the day the little boy arrived in Cuba. Its title is Elián’s Return is Time Travel for Journalist. It was originally published on July 6, 2000.
“For the journalist, always trying to keep his distance from his subjects and to report as objectively as humanly possible, there are nevertheless stories that forcefully play his emotional strings… For me, the Elián González saga is one of those stories. And not only because of the injustice of tearing a little boy from his father for the worst political reasons, but also because there are so many coincidences between this writer's life and Elián's….
Elián, who became the most famous little boy in the world, was born in Cárdenas, a quiet coastal city three hours east of Havana. And so was I. Just to add another element of coincidence, my youngest brother, a doctor in Miami, also is named Elián.
When I was Elián's age, I used to attend the same Cárdenas school he does now. The sturdy, attractive two-story school building, is punctured by many windows and extends for one full block. Today, as when I was a student there, more than 900 children take classes in it. It has not changed much, although it is well kept. In the schoolyard there is still the same monument erected to the memory of José Martí, Cuba's greatest patriot and poet, in front of which the whole school gathered every Friday morning to pledge allegiance to the flag…
In the 1950s, when I was a student there, the school was called "La Progresiva" (The Progressive). It had been founded in 1900 by Robert Wharton, an American Presbyterian minister. It developed into one of the best schools in the country. After the revolution in 1959, the name was changed to Escuela Primaria Marcelo Salado, to honor a young revolutionary hero killed by dictator Fulgencio Batista’s murderous police. Salado, an accomplished athlete, was my phys ed teacher at La Progresiva for a couple of years.
Last Wednesday I went to my old school to do my journalistic job. As I stepped on the logo of La Progresiva, still engraved in the granite floor of the school lobby, it was as if I had taken a trip back in time. I saw myself, a skinny little boy carrying a book bag way too big for him, dressed in the school uniform of khaki pants, white shirt and black tie. And I also saw Elián, another skinny little boy, wearing the current school uniform of red pants, white shirt and blue scarf, also carrying his heavy load of schoolbooks. But I am a journalist, and I was there to report on the story of Elián's cruelly delayed return home. I had to hold back emotions and convey an accurate account of the emotions of others: Teachers, parents and above all students, laughing and hugging each other, anxiously waiting to board the 30 buses that would take them to Havana to welcome their pupil, their son, their friend. It was a moment of happiness, pride and relief as I have experienced few times before: Soon Elián would be in Cuba, where he belongs.
All the while, as the journalist, reporter's notebook in hand talked to people and took down their words, a skinny little boy carrying a huge book bag and wearing the khaki and white school uniform, smiled and jumped for joy at the schoolyard because his friend Elián was finally coming home.”
For more info on the documentary, see “Miami se reencuentra con Elián 17 años después y en un cine”, in Al Día News.