More than two decades after he was found clinging to an inner tube in the Straits of Florida, Elián González is taking on his most high profile role since the bitter custody battle that returned him to Cuba.
On Monday, Cuba’s National Election Council said that the 470 candidates for the island’s National Assembly – González included—were approved by voters. More than 89% of voters in González’s hometown of Cárdenas voted for him, according to officials.
There was little doubt about the final result; candidates are pre-selected and run unopposed. And being a lawmaker in Cuba does not necessarily imply having a lot of power. Legislators only meet a few times a year, invariably support government proposals and are not even paid.
But González’s new position signals that he will be more visible at a time when the Cuban government badly needs representatives with name recognition abroad, as well as among younger Cubans who are leaving the island in record numbers.
“I am someone the American people know and I can help bring the American and Cuban people together and not just the people,” a now-bearded González, 29, told CNN.
“That our governments reach an understanding and remove all the barriers between us. Our country doesn’t have any sanctions on the United States.”
González spoke with CNN after going to vote on Sunday with his wife and their two-year-old daughter in Cárdenas, which, like many small cities in Cuba, has been ravaged by economic calamity: harsher US sanctions, the sluggish pace of reforms by the communist-run government, a pandemic that scared off tourists and inflation that has made state salaries nearly worthless.
Having a daughter, González said, gave him a new perspective on the decisions his own father Juan Miguel made when in 1999 Elián’s mother drowned after attempting to take him with a group of migrants on the dangerous journey by boat across the Florida Straits.
“It’s helped me to understand my father,” he said. “It’s made me more sensitive. It’s helped me understand how all the Cubans feel who are separated from their families and fathers who aren’t able to give all the attention and things their children want.”
After being rescued, González was placed with relatives in Miami.
News of his miraculous survival led many in Miami’s anti-Castro exile community to argue that the wishes of González’s mother should be honored and the boy needed to stay in Florida.
The dispute ignited Cold War-era passions, with then-Cuban President Fidel Castro leading protests demanding Elián’s return in front of the US Embassy in Havana, and Cuban exile leaders vowing that they would not allow the boy to return to live under a dictatorship.
Finally, after Elián’s father Juan Miguel traveled to Washington DC, US courts backed his requests to be reunited with his son.
A nighttime raid on his relatives’ home in Miami by armed federal agents sparked riots in the city and returned Elián to his father. When the US Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case, Elián and Juan Miguel traveled back to the island.
In Cuba, the now-famous González and his family led a not entirely normal life. Fidel Castro came to the boy’s birthday parties in Cárdenas and the family had bodyguards. Elián went to a military school and studied engineering.
When he did grant infrequent interviews he voiced support for the revolution, which many in Miami said was proof Elián had been brainwashed and should never have been allowed to go back to Cuba.
“At 29, he is a show pony for Cuba, as many exiles feared,” said an opinion article published by the Miami Herald Editorial Board in February. “Many historic Cuban exiles in Miami will look away from this news with heavy hearts.”
Even as González has grown up and moved on, the anger between those loyal to the revolution and Cuba exiles forced to leave the island still burns white hot.
At a World Baseball Classic game in Miami in March that in theory was intended to bring different countries together over a shared love of sport, exiles jeered the Cuban players on the field.
Officials in Havana responded that the exiles were “worms,” an epithet that Fidel Castro flung at Cubans leaving the island.
More than sixty years after the Cuban revolution, as the island inches nearer to economic ruin and exiles are no closer to returning home, it’s difficult for either side to really believe they are winning.
González is perhaps the only Cuban who has been inside the centers of power in both Miami and Havana, seeing how those who run Cuba, and those who lost it, think and function.
Despite being thrust into the middle of that bruising tug of war, González said he bears no ill will, that he’s grateful for the Americans who helped him get home and that he hopes to reconcile with the relatives in Florida who tried to prevent his return.
And as a rare Cuban who has left and come back, he hopes the exodus of Cubans currently leaving the island will also be able to see a future in their homeland.
“What we want one day is Cuban exiles are no longer exiled, that they come home,” González said. “When the young people that have left are willing to work for Cuba, the well-being of Cubans beyond a political party and beyond ideologies,” he said. “Our doors are open to build a better country which is what we need.”