IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Finding Elian

Elian's name once dominated the headlines, the little boy at the center of an international tug of war between his relatives in Florida and his father in Cuba. But in the four years since Elian's return to his homeland, he's virtually disappeared from view. Dateline travels to Cuba to find out what his life is like now.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Of all the strange, discordant moments that have soured the Cuban family feud, surely the most traumatic was the day the Elian custody battle was sorted out at the point of a gun. And yet, after all those thousands of hours of breathless coverage on cable TV, the furious angst, after all that, there was silence. There was barely a word about Elian. This story is about the search for Elian. Who knew that finding him would pull us into a family squabble that's getting even nastier?

Elian Gonzales became the disputed prize in the U.S.-Cuban battle right at Thanksgiving 1999, the survivor of that ill-fated escape from Cuba in the leaky motorboat. Before his Miami relatives, a great uncle and cousin, could claim him for a life of freedom in America, he had watched his own mother drown.

It was just about this time, late June in 2000, that the bitter struggle ended and the boy flew back to the Western world's only remaining communist state in the tight grip of his father, Juan Miguel, to a tumultuous victory party in Castro's Havana.

When we told the story in the spring of 2000, Elian was the face of Havana, the most famous 6-year-old boy in the world.

Havana has changed little in those four years, but for one significant thing. Where once images of Elian were everywhere, they have now simply disappeared. Even the building on which his billboard was painted has been torn down. Elian came home alright but, where is he? What happened to that little boy?

The answer, says president of the Cuban parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, lies with Elian's father, Juan Miguel, and it goes back to the very night of that welcome home celebration, when Juan Miguel asked him to leave the party and go for a stroll.

Ricardo Alarcon: "Nobody else was there, and he took a breath profoundly and said, 'No more marshals, my God, at last.' He said, 'Let's go and have a couple of beers.'"

And with that, Alarcon says, Juan Miguel took Elian and went back to Cardenas, his hometown, to leave behind all the politics and publicity of that seven-month custody battle. Alarcon wanted us to meet the father and his famous son, to let us see how the boy was getting along. Even Castro said to go ahead.

And then we hit a brick wall, named Juan Miguel Gonzales. Nobody from American TV, he said, will see me or my son, no matter what Castro says. And that was that -- unless, by showing up at the door, we could change some minds.

And so on a brilliant, sunny morning not long ago we boarded the daily charter from Miami to Havana. For almost 25 years now, since Castro first allowed them, these flights have brought Cuban exiles home to visit the families they left behind. We've decided, while figuring out how to get to Elian, to have a look around, in the company of a long lost son of Cuba named Pedro Irigonegaray.

Hewas 12 on a day 43 years ago, when his family divided. His parents went to Kansas with him, the aunts who until then had helped raise him, remained in Havana. It’s the aunts he's coming back to see.

Pedro turns out to be, now, a very successful civil rights lawyer. He says he is grateful to have grown up in America, away from a country away from a country where free press doesn't exist, a place where criticizing Castro's regime can land you in jail, as it did last year, when over 70 of Castro's most vocal opponents were rounded up and sentenced to an average of 20 years in prison -- an act condemned by the U.S. and many of Cuba's strongest allies.

Pedro Irigonegaray: "It makes me ill to know that today not far from where we are, there are good people arrested simply because they spoke their mind. I'm not here supporting the dictatorship of Fidel Castro."

Though it’s highly unlikely anybody on the plane is supportive of Castro, just the same, it lands to applause and tears.

On a tour of his past, Pedro is flooded with memories. On top of El Moro, the Havana port lighthouse, he remembers a vibrant, shining city, crumbling now.

Irigonegaray: "Havana is broken. But what a magnificent city, isn't it?"

The old neighborhood is just as it was. Pedro mounts the wall he once climbed as a schoolboy to spy on the exotic women at the famous Tropicana.

Irigonegaray: "See, we used to come out here, and then get one of our buddies to give us a leg up, like we did here."

And when he finally finds the boyhood home he left that awful day in 1961, he is welcomed by the same two families that have occupied the place ever since, and who are today celebrating a birthday. Come anytime, they tell him. It’s your home, too.

Though we can see clearly the hard day-to-day reality, there is something infectious about the place, and when Pedro joins a street band for an impromptu performance it is clear he is smitten, broken city or not.

A well-hidden boy
And as we watch Pedro we wonder, what about young Elian? Is he happy to be back? Or is his life the misery some Miami Cubans predicted four years ago. What did he find at the end of that motorcade?

The longer we stay in Havana, the clearer it becomes, Elian Gonzales is one well-hidden boy, hidden from the foreign media, at least. Our roadblock is his father. He knows we're in the country and it’s clear he's avoiding us. So we decide to try the direct approach. We'll travel to his turf.

Cardenas is, quite literally, a horse and buggy town, a two hour drive down the Cuban coast from Havana. It’s poor and provincial, the town from which Elian Gonzales and his mother left on that fateful trip to Miami, and to which, we know, the boy has returned. But now there is not a sign of him.

That is, except for a room in the local museum where it's obvious he has not been forgotten. There, amid photos and artifacts of the six month long custody battle, is a statue of the boy, striking a revolutionary pose, enshrined in plaster and bronze.

There's the school he went to, and to which he has returned, we're told, but they won't let us film in there. And when we arrive at the little house where we know Elian and his family lived four years ago, they're gone and the door locked.

Pretty soon it's apparent that friends and neighbors, the whole town in fact, has erected a kind of wall of protection, to keep the inquisitive world media from finding him.

We return to Havana to ponder our next move, where we find that the kind of political battle that once swirled around young Elian, has just sideswiped Pedro Irigonegaray, the Cuban-American lawyer here to visit his aunts. In fact, it's hit every Cuban-American who has family on the island.

Conflict continues over politics and family
Every morning for some years this has been the scene at Havana International Airport, Cuban-Americans arriving here from Miami, New York, Los Angeles, on their one visit permitted each year to see relatives, bring them money and gifts to help them survive. But no more. Now the number of trips they are permitted, the amount of money they may bring has been drastically cut back, and in many cases eliminated all together. Is it another crack down by Castro's repressive regime? No. This is a policy made in America. It's the latest salvo in a 43 year battle to force Fidel Castro from power.

After a decade of tentative openings, educational visits, expanded food trade and so on, the Bush administration has clamped down on travel to the island and especially on Cuban-Americans' visits there.

The U.S. thinking goes something like this: Each time a Cuban-American brings or sends money to relatives, that money, almost $1 billion last year, boosts the island's economy and helps Castro continue his dictatorship. So beginning July 2004, Cuban-Americans may only visit direct family members, and then only once every three years.  If their relatives are uncles or cousins or, say, aunts, as in Pedro's case, those Cuban-Americans will never be allowed to return or send money ever.

That means this is the only trip for Pedro,

Irigonegaray: "I may never see them alive again."

So when he arrives at their home in what once was an upscale Havana neighborhood, determined to make every moment count. The aunts are well aware that this may be his last visit, and so they've looked through the house to find the baseball bat Pedro played with when he was 10. As they pore over old family albums, the mood is a deep melancholy. Just like Elian, Pedro is caught in the middle of an ugly international divorce.

Keith Morrison: "You know, under the new rules of the United States, Pedro Will not be considered part of your family."

Aunt: "He's our nephew. He has the same blood as her and mine. The family is only one. The family."

Morrison: "I don't want to be melodramatic here, but when you say good-bye to these beautiful people it'll be for the last time."

Irigonegaray: "It's not melodramatic. It's unfortunately the painful reality, except that this time it's my government. Because I am first an American citizen. And my own country is now telling me these folks do not exist. What is the sense of that?"

Morrison: "If you're told that you can't be a part of these women's lives anymore."

Irigonegaray: "Nobody can tell me that. Nobody can tell me that. Period."

The past 43 years of tough U.S. economic restrictions haven't sent Castro packing, and Pedro contends these new ones won't either. But U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, who helped formulate the new regulations, disagrees.

Roger Noriega: "It's a tragedy that Castro has survived, that his dictatorship has survived. But we have a policy that for the first time will help Cubans bring an end to the dictatorship."

Morrison: "Does it make any sense at all? That the country that says it's a beacon of democracy would be telling its citizens where they can and cannot go. and how often they may do it and how long they may stay and how much money they may take. Is that democratic policy?"

Noriega: "It is a policy that's intended to help bring democracy in Cuba, which is where it is sorely needed.

Morrison: "Does that seem fair to the people? To the individuals?"

Noriega: "To the individuals it may not seem fair. But the problem of the Cuba situation is not that families are divided. The problem is that half the family lives in a dictatorship."

The biggest victims are the millions of Cubans who do not have relatives in the United States who can come visit or send cash.

Noriega: "What are we supposed to say to them? We're going to allow this money to be shoveled into the coffers of a regime that's going to keep them in chains and under a dictatorship because we want to preserve the right of people to visit their aunts?"

But Ricardo Alarcon, behind Fidel Castro one of the most powerful men on the island, and the same official who shared that beer with Elian's father four years ago, says that when it comes to Cuba, the United States practices a double standard. He points out that the Bush administration has done nothing to prevent $300 million in U.S. food sales to Cuba, nor does it restrict travel to other communist nations or other countries accused of human rights abuses.

Alarcon: "Why are we the forbidden land? We are inviting Americans saying ‘Why don't you come here? Visit us.’ It is the U.S. who opposed that."

Morrison: "You can accuse all you like, but the fact is you have no control over what the United States does. You do have control over what the Cuban government does. You can have a free press. You can have more freedoms in this country. But you choose not to."

Alarcon: "Well, we choose to be an independent country. It’s very simple. Cuba is not part of the United States."

Which is why, Alarcon claims, it had the right to arrest those critics last year. He says their activities were funded by the U.S. government.

Alarcon: "We have the right to protect ourselves against those actions."

Morrison: "Yeah. But all Cuba needs to do is open up, provide some democracy, so why don't you do it? Why don't you become more…"

Alarcon: "Why don't you leave us alone? Iraq doesn't suffice to you? You need more trouble? Let's just live in peace."

Will the famous waiter talk?
But as we argued politics, and Pedro rode his emotional roller coaster, there was a change in the wind out in the town of Cardenas. There was no sign of Elian yet, but we were about make a move which would get us a lot closer.

After all other attempts to see the family had failed, we drive out to Varadero, a resort town about half an hour from Cardenas. Why Veradero? Because Juan Miguel Gonzales works in an Italian restaurant there. And so we find the man who for a time four years ago was the most scrutinized father in the world. He's back at his old job as a waiter.

We had, frankly, no real expectation that this famous waiter would agree to see us. Still, we approach with the request. Will he grant us his first interview in years? And to our surprise, he agrees.

Juan Miguel: "I've continued to be the same person. I have continued to live in the same place, in Cardenas. I have continued to work in the same job. And my life has continued to be the same."

Most of Juan Miguel Gonzales' story of the last four years is about his attempt, tough as it may be, to reclaim some of the normalcy of his life, before his son was swept away in a political storm on the other side of the Florida Strait.

Morrison: "A lot of people thought you could have moved into a big house in Havana, and could have all the privileges you wanted."

Juan Miguel: "If anything had appealed to me I might not have come back. I returned because I like the way I live. I've never received any privileges, never received any favors, no different than anybody else around here. Everything's just normal."

Well, not quite normal. He's been elected to the national assembly, is often front row center at political rallies, to pay back, he says, for the support Cubans gave him during his ordeal. We notice, as we talk, that at least two body guards are watching. They are perfectly friendly, but protective, just like the friends and family we encountered in town.

It started, Juan Miguel tells us, when he was returning to Cuba with Elian and his baby brother.

Juan Miguel: "I received letters, phone calls, that they were going to kidnap my other son, the little one."

He thinks the threats were from somebody in Florida, though he says he doesn’t know from whom.

Juan Miguel: "I was so insecure. Even when I arrived in Cuba, still sitting on the plane, I didn't feel safe. Only after I saw Elian's classmates, the people that I knew, did I feel safe enough to let the boy go.

Fame, Juan Miguel says, has been anything but easy. After all his time in front of a forest of television cameras in Miami, Elian has developed a deep-seated fear of the media. Which is why his father says he has done all he could to keep his son out of the limelight, even going as far as moving into a new house, its new location secret, a security team nearby.

Juan Miguel: "The media intimidated him, pressured him. Most of all, it totally overwhelmed him. Here, actually, it hasn't happened. I have tried in any way I can to keep the press as far away as possible."

Morrison: "I'm trying to imagine how it would be for a 6,7,8-year-old boy to deal with these kinds of issues he had. Did he suffer from nightmares for example when you got back? Did you have to get counseling for him?"

Juan Miguel: "I can truly say that since his return my son has never had to see a psychologist, or anyone else. The boy simply found a friend in his father, found his family, and that was the best psychologist that he could have ever had."

At the end of our talk, to prove, he says, that Elian has returned to being just a normal boy once again, Juan Miguel offers something we'd never expected -- a chat with Elian.

We're to return in a few days. And then?  We're driving to Cardenas to meet the boy when we get the word that Elian has pulled out. Even after four years, Juan Miguel tells us, the trauma of strangers with cameras has not gone away. And the father will not force the son to appear.

Elian, the heartthrob
Once again, it’s a dead end. As a last straw we try to persuade Juan Miguel to borrow one of our cameras to film his son. He takes the camera but is non-committal. And then, a week and a half later, the phone rings. Would you like the tape now, he asks?

And so finally there was Elian Gonzales. Somewhere in Cardenas, in a modest, though by Cuban standards rather modern home, a 10-year-old boy looks pretty much like 10-year-olds everywhere. He does his homework, according to his dad, is a good student.

Juan Miguel: "There are times when I go to help him with a math problem and I try to count with my fingers to solve it and he says, ‘Forget it papa, you're worse than I am.’"

He is a karate enthusiast, it turns out, and practices three times a week. He is only a couple of belts away from the much-coveted black, his proud father tells us. He is also, apparently, a local heartthrob.

Morrison: "Does Elian have a girlfriend?"

Juan Miguel: "Yes." [laughter]

Morrison: "No, come on."

Juan Miguel: "He has one in school and one in the neighborhood."

Morrison: "Already running around, huh?"

Juan Miguel: "Yeah." [laughter]

In the evening, after school, sports and girls, Elian plays with his little brother. There are five of them now. The parents and three boys. And like a lot of other families, they watch television in a living room full of family photographs. One of them we don't see on the home video. By his bed, says Juan Miguel, Elian keeps a photo of his mother, Elizabeth.

Juan Miguel: "When it's Mother's Day, or her birthday, he puts flowers there. I have him write a card and he puts it there. Really he's 10 years old, he's an intelligent kid, he knows everything that happened."

His stepmother is Laura. He calls her mama and helps her put one of his little brothers to bed. It’s apparently a normal life, though, when we dig through the archives at Cuban TV, it becomes a little more complex than that.

At Elian's 10th birthday party, just like in his now-famous 5th birthday video, filmed in Cardenas when his mother was still alive, a clown is there, but so is his entire school. And what other boy could expect Fidel Castro to come to his birthday party?

There is also footage of Elian front and center at a big communist party celebration, Castro by his side. So he is private perhaps, but also, whether his father likes it or not, a national symbol, in a country that loves symbols.

It was also a week when Pedro Irigonegaray was flying back to America, wondering if he ever will see his aunts again. This was true, it seems, of almost the entire plane load of Cuban-American passengers and the relatives they're leaving behind, coping the best they can with the clear understanding that, at least for the moment, their connection with home and family has been cut off.

It was a week when once again the question of what to do about Cuba was hot and getting hotter. But in horse and buggy Cardenas, Elian Gonzales, once the most famous little boy in the world, had taken a page from Greta Garbo. He just wants to be left alone.