HAVANA — 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 recently entered his country’s congress with hopes of helping his people at a time of record emigration and heightened tension between the two seaside neighbors.
“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 criticism of 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.
The tug-of-war quickly gained the world’s attention and became emblematic of the testy feelings between the two neighboring nations. 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, effectively Cuba’s congress. 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.
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.
The legislative body has faced criticism for lacking opposition voices and for carrying out the agenda set by the country’s leadership.
González’s legislative term comes amid historic emigration from the crisis-stricken Caribbean island, as many young Cubans seek a new life in the U.S. — just as his mother did.
It also comes at a moment of heightened tensions between the two nations. There have been allegations that Cuba hosted a Chinese spy base, which Cuba adamantly denies. Meanwhile, Cuba claims Biden has yet to ease tough policies enacted by former U.S. President Donald Trump that target the island, while the U.S. points to the resumption of some flights and sending of remittances.
Amid a deepening political 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, echoing many in the government. 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.
Despite harsh prison sentences doled out by Cuban courts and punishments defended by the communist government, González said his people have the right to demonstrate. But he added that the causes of current crises should be analyzed before condemning the state.
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.”