The most famous name in Cuba is obviously “Fidel.” But do you know what the second-most famous name is? That would be “Elián,” the name of the little boy who was found floating alone in the sea in 1999 after his mother and 12 others tried unsuccessfully to reach Florida in a small boat. His mother, stepfather, and 7 other passengers perished but somehow little Elián, only 5 years old, survived, was found by fishermen and brought to Florida. Every single person in Cuba knows the name “Elián” and it’s not simply because he was miraculously protected out in the open sea.
What happened in his life afterward became a dramatic milestone in the already dramatic history between Cuba and the United States. Once rescued and given into the custody of his relatives on his mother’s side, his father, still in Cuba, publicly proclaimed that he wanted his son returned to him in Cuba. The relatives in Miami refused. This set off a firestorm that lasted several months.
I remember the details of this international incident so vividly because they occurred just two months after I made my first Cuban friend by email. This drama surrounding Elián captured the interest of both countries, as the press and the public debated politics vs. parental rights. All the animosity toward Fidel Castro came out, sometimes in ugly ways, and he was accused of manipulating the dad. The relatives in Miami, also vilified by some, were accused of valuing Disney World over Dad in little Elián’s life. America had a passionate national conversation as to whether it is better for a young, traumatized Cuban boy to grow up in Miami and have the luxuries of American life or be returned to his father to resume a meager life in Cuba. There were debates on American television and massive marches held in Havana.
The ordeal culminated in the amazing act of the US government sending in a SWAT team to pluck the boy from his relatives’ home in Miami in order to deliver him to the father, who traveled to the the States to claim his son.
I had not thought about Elián in a number of years because although everyone in Cuba knows his name he is no longer in the public eye. He is a college student who, although he will never escape his fame, has basically returned to a regular pattern of living.
On the last day of our team retreat, however, I found myself thinking very much about this young boy. We all went to a very beautiful park in order to have a devotional time together and the members of the team informed me that Elián’s father works at the small snack shop there. I was sort of stunned to hear that, because you would think that the dad, who is also a nationally known figure, would not be working in such a low-end position after being in the public eye so intensely.
Juan Miguel is a very friendly and gracious person who is obviously accustomed to having strangers, both Cuban and foreigners, come up to him and initiate conversations about his son. I was careful not to make any political comments regarding what happened fifteen years ago, but I did express to him what was really in my heart. I shared with him that I recall vividly everything he and his son lived through during those times. “I remember all your interviews on TV, including the one on 60 Minutes, and I feel you did very well considering you were thrown into impossible circumstances.”
He appreciated that sentiment and even invited Celia and me to return to the park later in the week so we could meet Elián. We unfortunately had to decline because our itinerary had us leaving the area the next day.
The question that was so hotly debated during the time of Elián’s rescue and his eventual return to his father in Cuba is still very pertinent today. That question is: is it better for fathers and sons to stay together in spite of poverty and lack of opportunity? Or might the cruel reality be that it is better for the sons in the long run to be separated from their fathers for a time so that eventually they can enjoy the benefits of American life?
I have been contemplating this question regularly over the past two months since a dear friend and close colleague surprisingly left Cuba with his wife, leaving their two young sons in the care of the grandparents. It will be at least 18 months before the parents will be able to see the sons again, and will be longer than that for the children to be authorized to join their parents in the United States. That seems like a long time to be separated from your children especially when they’re in their early teens, but I am sure the parents have done it with the intention of establishing a new life of opportunity. They would probably say that a couple of years apart will be a small price to pay for their children to go to college in the USA and live their adult lives here.
I’m saddened and disappointed by the parents’ decision but I cannot and do not judge them because I have never really lived in Cuba as a Cuban. Though I have been to the country 48 times and on many trips have stayed in private homes, I am aware that my knowledge of what real life is like for the average Cuban is nonetheless limited. Although I know how long it takes them every day to find food for their families, even when they have money available, I’ve never actually had to live through that for an extended period. Though I have had some challenges as a foreigner ministering within the system, I’ve never had to deal with that for months and years in a row and I’ve always had the option of simply going back home. I’m in no position to judge, but I can tell you how disappointed I am that over the last three years our team has lost three important colleagues who have left the country, each one leaving their children behind with the hope of bringing them to America.
So far, none of them have accomplished it.