Elián, son of Cuba, among history’s most famous 5-year-olds
Elián González / Ross McDonnell

The rescue of Elián González, the 5-year-old Cuban boy found floating near-death in a life jacket off the coast of Miami in 1999, was one of the biggest stories of the decade, and its impact is still being felt today. However, once the boy was returned to Cuba, the story quickly dropped from the news. President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno became enemies of the Miami Cubans. Most people today know little of what became of that little frightened child who was snatched from the grips of his Miami relatives to be returned to his family in Cuba.

A new documentary produced by the prolific filmmaker Alex Gibney bears the simple title Elián (see trailer). It was screened recently at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It is a poignant and profound journey through the troubled waters of U.S.-Cuban relations and the dramatic events that followed Elián from the time his mother chose to take him with her on a raft to America. Elián González became a major symbol of U.S.-Cuban relations, pitting the rabid Miami anti-Castroites against Fidel and the entire country of Cuba who were fighting to return the boy to his father. He became “a boy caught between two worlds.”

But with Obama’s recent visit to the island causing a temporary thaw in relations, Gibney and the directors took advantage and gained unprecedented access to Elián and his family. What they discovered was a very soft-spoken, unassuming but confident young man living a normal and active life. However, much to their obvious unspoken dismay, Elián has grown up to be a committed communist in total sync with his loving father. Both father and son held Fidel in the highest regard and became close friends with him before he died.

While Elián was held in Miami against his father’s wishes, he gained the love and support of the local anti-Castro Cubans, including his cousin Maurilesis who developed a close bond to the young troubled child she could identify with. The over half-century economic blockade of the island and resultant ideological differences have created the tragic displacement and splitting of families, many coming to the States under extreme conditions. There is much passion in the Cuban community, and Elián’s Cuban father, Miguel, still tears up when hearing of his son’s ordeals. It’s his brother’s family in Miami who wouldn’t return his son, and his divorced wife is the one who, without the father’s consent, chose to risk their son’s life to get to American dry land.

The movie’s strength and attraction lie in showing what happened to the young man once he left American shores. Most of the American footage was seen endless times during the real ordeal. But with easy access to the Miami Cubans who played major roles in this drama, in addition to leading political figures and media personalities, the filmmakers were able to present both sides of the story in a fairly objective manner. This is a story of family and the challenges of reconciliation; between divided relatives and two nations working toward healing old wounds.

But time has changed the Cuban American community. They were outliers back then, as an overwhelming 75 percent of Americans wanted the boy returned to Cuba. They’ve gotten old, died off, and the younger Cuban-American generation and growing numbers of other Americans want to normalize relations.

Not surprisingly, though, the documentary goes only as far as expected in America—not recognizing that Cuba is a sovereign nation rightfully choosing its own social system, and failing to accept the many accomplishments of Fidelista socialism. The anti-communist bias is prevalent throughout, with the filmmakers constantly using such terms as the “Castro regime” and hoping the younger generation will help lead Cuba to a “democratic” system.

In a discussion following the screening, Irish co-director Ross McDonnell and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tim Golden seemed slightly at odds about their political analysis of Cuba, with McDonnell sounding more appeasing and fending off accusations that Elián might be “brainwashed.” By contrast, Golden suggested that although Elián appeared to be “a true believer,” he was living in a bubble! There was also a suggestion that Elián’s militancy was a little out of step with the younger generation in Cuba.

However, both directors felt this “young communist” understood his country’s history and the causes of the revolution, and could possibly run for office in the near future. (See the 2015 ABC News interview here.) They said it took awhile to get access to Elián, but then relations warmed and he became easily available. The directors also mentioned that both Elián and his father seemed to enjoy the film and felt it was balanced and fair. Elián said he would have liked to see more pictures of him and his father together, stressing the importance his father has played in his life. I would say that he is not featured enough in the movie, with most video focusing on the events in Miami. But even that little bit makes this an important and entertaining documentary about one of the most famous 5-year-old boys in history.

Co-directed by Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell
2017, 108 minutes
Fine Point Films, Jigsaw Productions


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.