Onetime child symbol of the U.S. blockade Elián González elected to Cuba’s congress
Elián González poses for a portrait in front of the Capitolio in Havana, Cuba, June 27, 2023. Decades after González became the center of a dramatic diplomatic custody battle between Cuba and the United States, the young Cuban is now headed to his country’s congress with hopes of representing his people at a time of record migration and heightened tension between the two seaside neighbors. | Ramon Espinosa / AP

HAVANA (AP)—Elián González has the same big, expressive eyes he did 23 years ago when an international custody battle transformed him into the face of the long-strained relations between Cuba and the United States.

Now 29, González is stepping into Cuban politics. He was recently elected to his country’s legislature with hopes of helping his people at a time of record emigration and heightened U.S. tension toward its seaside neighbor.

“From Cuba, we can do a lot so that we have a more solid country, and I owe it to Cubans,” he said during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. “That is what I’m going to try to do from my position, from this place in Congress—to contribute to making Cuba a better country.”

González has given only a handful of interviews since he was unwittingly thrust into the geopolitical spotlight as a boy. In 1999, at just 5 years old, he and his mother were aboard a boat of Cuban migrants headed toward Florida when the boat capsized in the Florida Straits. His mother and 10 others died while González, tied to an inner tube, drifted in open water until his rescue.

Granted asylum under U.S. refugee rules at the time, González went to live with his great uncle, a member of the Cuban exile community in Miami that is often a center of fierce attacks on Cuba’s government. In Cuba, his father begged then-President Fidel Castro for help. Castro led protests with hundreds of thousands of people demanding little Elián’s return. Anti-Castro groups in Miami pressed for him to stay in the U.S.

Elián Gonzalez is held in a closet by Donato Dalrymple, one of the two men who rescued the boy from the ocean, right, as government officials search the home of Lazaro Gonzalez for the young boy, in Miami, Florida, April 22, 2000. | Alan Diaz / AP

The tug-of-war quickly gained the world’s attention and became emblematic of the policy of the U.S. toward the small socialist island. Then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ruled the boy should be returned to his father, but González’s relatives refused. AP photojournalist Alan Diaz captured the moment when armed immigration agents seized González in a Miami home, and the photo later won a Pulitzer Prize.

“Not having my mom has been difficult, it has been a burden, but it has not been an obstacle when I have had a father who has stood up for me and been by my side,” González told AP.

He is a father himself now, of a 2-year-old daughter. He works for a state company that facilitates tourism to the island nation his mother left, underscoring the alternate track his life has followed since his homecoming.

What’s more, he recently became a lawmaker.

In April, González was sworn in as a member of Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, the national legislature. He represents Cárdenas, a town in Matanzas province about 80 miles (about 130 kilometers) east of Havana where he lived until his mother took him to sea. He still lives in the province.

Dressed in black pants and T-shirt, with a discreet braided bracelet on his right hand and his wedding ring on his left, González was interviewed in Havana’s Capitol, the renovated seat of congress.

“I think the most important thing is that I have grown up like other young people. I have grown up in Cuba,” he said.

Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks to Elián Gonzalez, Oct. 20, 2004, in Santa Clara at a celebration of Cuban Culture Day. | Jose Goitia / AP

For years, his father made it nearly impossible to get close to the child. From afar, the boy could sometimes be seen playing with other children or accompanying his father to political events. Castro would visit him on his birthday.

Over the years, González was a military cadet and later became an industrial engineer. Because Cuba’s congressional positions are unpaid, he will continue to work his tourism job.

González’s legislative term comes amid historic emigration from the crisis-stricken Caribbean island, as a rough economy pushes many young Cubans to seek a way to the U.S.—just as his mother did.

It also comes at a time when U.S. policy toward Cuba has again taken on a Cold War standing. The U.S. has alleged that Cuba hosted a Chinese spy base, which Cuba adamantly denies. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has yet to ease tough policies enacted by former U.S. President Donald Trump that target the island, although the Biden administration points to the resumption of some flights and sending of remittances as evidence it hasn’t just stuck to Trump’s orders.

Amid a deepening economic and energy crisis in Cuba, González cast blame on decades of American sanctions stifling the island’s economy as the root of many of Cuba’s problems. He said he believes in Cuba’s model of providing free access to education and health services among other things, but acknowledged there is a long way to go for that to be perfected.

He also had kind words for the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who, like his mother, chose to emigrate.

“I respect all those who made the decision to leave Cuba, I respect those who do so today, just as I do my mom,” he said. “My message will always be that (those who leave) do all they can to ensure that Cuba has a status (without sanctions) equal to any country in the world.”


Andrea Rodríguez
Andrea Rodríguez

Havana Correspondent, Associated Press. Corresponsal de Associated Press en Cuba.