Program note: CNN Films presents, “Elian,” the story of a custody fight over a six-year-old boy that grew into an international incident. Watch “Elian,” Thursday, August 24, at 10 p.m. ET on CNN. This story has been updated from an article first published in 2015.
When little Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba in 2000 following a poisonous custody battle and a federal raid on his Miami relatives’ home, it was to resume a life far from the glare of the media spotlight. At least that’s what Cuban officials and his father said at the time.
Seventeen years later, it hasn’t worked out that way.
CNN Films: 'Elian'
Gonzalez, 23, remains one of the most identifiable figures on the island and one of his generation’s most outspoken supporters of the Cuban Revolution.
The little boy who was found clinging to an inner tube in the Florida Straits, and became famous playing in the yard of his Miami kin’s home while two countries battled over his fate, graduated from a military academy in 2016 with a degree in industrial engineering.
“I don’t do anything different than other young people,” Gonzalez said in 2015 in an interview with the Cuban Communist Party daily Granma. “I have fun, play sports, but I am also involved with the work of the revolution and realize that young people are essential for the development of the country.”
Before he graduated, Gonzalez told Granma, he plans on joining the Cuban military.
“Living here is a debt I owe to the Cuban people,” Gonzalez said. “That’s who I will always work and fight for.”
A deadly trip on a rickety boat
His journey to fame began with the international incident that exploded after 6-year-old Elian was found in the water on Thanksgiving Day 1999.
His mother, Elizabeth, and nine other people who were taking part in the clandestine journey drowned after their rickety boat capsized in high seas while they tried to make their way from Cuba to the United States.
Elian’s father, Juan Miguel, fought to bring the boy back to Cuba. Cuban leader Fidel Castro led massive protests on the island demanding Elian’s return.
The case became a flashpoint in the already boiling feud between supporters and opponents of Castro’s revolution.
Elian’s Miami relatives argued if the boy went back to Cuba, he would become a brainwashed trophy for Castro in his long-running feud with the US.
As the two sides fought out the high-profile case in court, U.S. immigration officials decided to put Elian in the custody of his father, who had come to the United States to press for his son’s return.
Elian’s relatives in Miami refused to hand him over, and then, in a nighttime raid, armed federal agents stormed the home of his uncle and seized the boy. An Associated Press photograph of the terrified child, cowering as an officer in riot gear points an assault rifle at him, inflamed passions even more.
Rioting broke out in Miami as many in the Cuban-American community reacted angrily to the seizure of the boy.
Elian was reunited with his father and following more court proceedings – ending with the Supreme Court rejecting the Miami relatives’ efforts to get him back – father and son flew home to Cuba.
A massive ‘welcome home’ demonstration
There the government celebrated Elian’s return with a massive demonstration.
From then on, Elian Gonzalez was surrounded by government bodyguards. He said later that they became some of his best friends during his childhood.
Gonzalez’s father, a waiter who had received invitations to defect while in the United States, was appointed to the island’s National Assembly.
Despite the promises he would return to his old life, Elian Gonzalez never stayed out of the public spotlight too long.
At his seventh birthday party, the guest of honor was Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Images of Elian and Castro celebrating were first shown on the island’s state-run TV and then transmitted around the world, to a public still fascinated by the case of the rafter-boy.
“I don’t profess to have any religion, but if I did my God would be Fidel Castro. He is like a ship that knew to take his crew on the right path,” Gonzalez said in an interview with Cuba’s state-run media in 2013.
‘I saw the monster from the inside’
In another 2013 interview, Gonzalez said he remembers little of the disastrous journey to the US or the tense months living with relatives in Miami’s Little Havana while lawyers and government officials argued over his future.
His mother was “manipulated” by her boyfriend to leave Cuba, he said, and if he had stayed in Miami, he would have been forced to become “a performer” for the media.
“I saw the monster from the inside,” he said, quoting Cuba’s revolutionary poet Jose Marti.
That same year, Gonzalez took his first trip outside of Cuba since his return from the United States, traveling to Ecuador for a youth conference.
During the conference, Gonzalez blasted U.S. policies that he said encouraged Cubans like his mother to make the dangerous journey by sea to Florida.
“Just like her, many others have died attempting to go to the United States. But it’s the US government’s fault,” he told CNN in an interview. “Their unjust embargo provokes an internal and critical economic situation in Cuba.”
‘The youngest of our heroes’
In 2014, Gonzalez was one of the guests of honor at the government celebration to mark the return of three Cuban intelligence agents who were freed as part of the historic thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“We are proud of him, as the youngest of our heroes,” Cuban President Raul Castro said during the ceremony, gesturing to Gonzalez in the audience, as he recounted the young man’s achievements in school the way a proud father would.
Speaking to ABC News in 2015, Gonzalez said he would like to visit the United States again one day to thank the people who supported his return to Cuba.
“To the American people, first I say thank you for the love they give me,” Gonzalez said. “I want the time to give my love to American people.”
But Gonzalez remains a strident revolutionary.
In 2015, he was elected to the leadership of his local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood watch groups that act as the front-line eyes and ears of the Cuban government. In recent years participation in the committees has dwindled, particularly among the young, who seem less interested in the 59-year-old revolution than their parents and grandparents are.
“It’s a mistake to say that young people are ‘lost,’” Gonzalez said in the interview with Granma in June. “Young people aren’t the future, we are the present.”
When Fidel Castro died on November 25, 2016 – the 17th anniversary of Elian’s rescue at sea – once again Gonzalez was front and center to take part in the official mourning.
Gonzalez’s voice cracked as he talked about Castro on state-run television.
“He was like a father,” he said. “I wanted to show him what I had achieved so he would be proud of me.”