In 1999, a desperate mother took to sea in her bid to flee Cuba with her little boy. Like so many refugees before her, she didn’t have access to a good boat or a safe way to cross the Florida Straits. Sadly, she didn’t make it, drowning on the way.
Her son, Elian, however, was found, clutching an inner tube, dehydrated and exhausted. Authorities rescued young Elian and found a home for him with his father’s cousins. This would have seemed to be the end of the story.
What happened next was a monumental, international custody battle that pitted Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez Quintana, and the Cuban government, against his father’s own family in Florida, as well as the Clinton administration. The results of that battle would echo far past the year 2000, and down through history.
The Family in Florida and the Cuban-American Community
After being picked up by the coast guard, Elian Gonzalez was placed with relatives of his father in Miami Beach. His father’s uncle, Lázaro González, along with his daughter, were more than willing to take in young Elian. Stalwarts of the Cuban community in Florida, the American relatives had no love for Castro or the Cuban government. Their position was that Elian should stay in the United States.
The Cuban community of Miami rallied around Lázaro and his daughter, and found in Elian a fitting symbol of their struggle against the Castro government. The argument advanced by many was that it would be a disservice to his mother, and bad for the boy’s future, to send him back to a place ruled by a repressive government.
Juan Miguel, Elian’s father, was aware that Elian had arrived safely, and wanted his son returned. He said that he had been unaware of his ex-wife’s plans to flee to the United States, and his son had, in fact, been kidnapped from him.
Juan Miguel reportedly received many offers of a house and a car, a job, and cash if he were to flee Cuba himself and just come to the United States. He was, however, not interested in emigrating. He just wanted his son back.
Both of Elian’s grandmothers (maternal and paternal) backed Juan Miguel in the petition to bring Elian home. The grandmothers even traveled to the United States to make their case to U.S. officials.
At the time, Cuba and the United States had no official channels of communication. The grandmothers, however, met with then-Attorney General Janet Reno to ask for their grandson’s return, and Spain’s foreign minister openly called for Elian’s return, citing international law.
Republican members of the U.S. Congress tried to round up the votes to confer citizenship on Elian, but failed to meet that number. (Their support of the Cuban community, however, did not go unnoticed). Vice President Al Gore initially supported the petition in congress on behalf of Elian, but later changed his position to fall in line with what the White House felt compelled to do: follow U.S. law.
In 2000, a Chicago-based attorney specializing in father’s rights filed an amicus brief with U.S courts on behalf of Juan Miguel. This set the foundation of the custody case to reunite González with his father in Cuba.
Despite a petition of asylum for Elian filed by Lázaro’s family, the U.S. district court in Florida ruled that only Elian’s father could petition for asylum. This decision was upheld by the appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Clinton Administration Returns Elian to His Father
This meant that Clinton-appointee Janet Reno had no choice but to order federal agents to take Elian from his uncle’s house and return him to Cuba. Since Lázaro’s family had no intention of cooperating, and had the entire Cuban community supporting them, this meant that armed agents stormed the house, and that a photo of a terrified Elian confronted by a soldier in kevlar, holding an automatic rifle, became the image that many Cuban-Americans took away from the Clinton administration.
The anger and frustration were real and widespread. The strong feelings in Florida, then, did not bode well for Al Gore’s chances in that state.
The Presidential Election
The 2000 presidential election was historically close. So close, that Americans did not know who had won until weeks later.
The vote in Florida and the electoral votes that it carried would be the deciding factor. After much controversy and an aborted recount, it was decided that George W. Bush had won the presidential election by only 537 votes.
This has begged the question for many historians: “did the Elian Gonzalez saga determine the presidential election?”
With a vote count that close, and the ongoing animosity of the Cuban-American community and the Hispanic community in general toward the Clinton administration and Al Gore, it seems likely that the fate of this young boy did indeed turn the election.
There are approximately 1.3 million Cuban-Americans in Florida. Many still hold so much animosity toward the administration of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, that they were still angry in 2016 when spoken to about the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
Seems like there is little to no doubt that the actions of Clinton/Gore, and the iconic photo of a terrified boy swung at least 537 votes toward George W. Bush, and played a massive factor in taking a presidential victory away from Al Gore.