My interview with Elian lasted about an hour and a half. Elian speaks only Spanish. I had my driver and friend Yuniel with me to serve as translator. The entire interview was too long to include in this blog posting so I have edited it to get the main points across. Keep in mind that this story is Elian’s and Elian’s alone. This interview in no way reflects my opinions. When he granted me the interview, I assured him that it was for the purpose of telling his story. I will forever be grateful for this fascinating encounter. Although there was a significant language barrier, I could tell from this young man’s body language that he was sincere. Upon returning to the United States, I had the entire interview translated and transcribed. The story you are about to read will hopefully take you back to 1999 and the daily media coverage. It’s a stark reminder that sometimes people can truly transcend politics. It’s a remarkable story from the very beginning and shows just how resilient children can be.
This year marks twenty years since it all happened. What are you doing now in terms of your job? Where are you living?
I competed my degree at the university. I studied industrial engineering and right now I work at a company based in my city. The company dedicates itself to the production of plastic products. I still live in Cárdenas. I live really close to my dad, my brother, and my grandparents.
Do you have any desire in the future to get involved in Cuban politics at all?
I have never been interested in politics and I’ve never been inclined to be in politics. Actually, I try to include myself as little as possible. Politics will always involve me. It is possible that at some moment I will get involved if it is necessary, but it is not my desire.
As a follow-up to that, what do you think we (you, me, us) could do to change the relationship between the United States and Cuba to make it better?
Cuba has demonstrated its willingness to cooperate with the United States and the United States has also demonstrated that desire. Those dreams that a lot of us had of bettering all these aspects were seen as failures with the Trump administration. I think that it depends on the strength of North Americans. We [Cubans] would like for the functions of the consulate and embassies to be reestablished and that they make it possible for Cubans to travel in a clean, organized manner to avoid migration that is illegal.
The dialogue is fractured between countries. I think that a lot of North Americans would like to have the privilege that was given to you to come visit Cuba. A lot of people can’t, similar to how a lot of Cubans want to visit the United States and they are obligated to do so by crossing borders, across Mexico and other countries. I think all of the weight falls on the people to ask for it [change], demand it. I don’t think that the president of the United States, be it Trump or anyone else, is going to change politics regarding Cuba. What will cause change are the American people. I’ve always said that I hold a great respect for the American people, because they go beyond their administration. They are the same as the Cubans, they know how to identify with a cause and fight for it. And that is why I have a desire to create better relationships between the two. But a great part of that, like I said, depends on the American people, because the administration and government isn’t going to pay attention to what the Cuban people ask for, they will pay attention to their own people.
Let me go back to 1999. You mentioned that you have a lot of respect for the American people. Do you feel like (and I know you were only 5 years old at the time) the Clinton Administration and Janet Reno, who was Attorney General at the time, handled the situation the right way?
I think he did the best he could as a president. He tried to find the most passive and most just solution, leaving it in the hands of the law and I think Reno did what’s right, I’m convinced, by deciding in favor of my dad. She made the decision that I be returned to where my dad was. There are people that question how they took me out of my uncle’s house and the way that the raid was done. I think it was very abrupt, but fortunately it didn’t have any real impact on my life. America gave me justice. They ordered that I be returned to my dad. When they [my Miami family] refused to release me, it became a kidnapping. They kept me in that house, and the house became filled with a lot of people and there were firearms – it was necessary to do it by force. No one was harmed, and in fact, the people that they chose to do it did it very well. The agents that intervened, I remember, spoke Spanish. They also looked for someone similar to my dad’s wife so that I would feel more familiar with someone right away. They told me, “we’re going to where your dad is,” they began to calm me down and, in that moment, they did a very good job. Right away, I felt calmer. Luckily, I think everything turned out fine and there was no harm done.
Some people in the United States believe that the decision President Clinton made to send you back to Cuba potentially cost Al Gore the presidential election because of the fallout with the Cuban-American community in Florida. What do you think?
Yes, I do believe that that’s possible. He did make a decision that disappointed the Cuban-American community in the United States. They felt betrayed by the Democratic Party and they felt disappointed by the administration (both the President and the Vice President). That could have led to a loss of votes in Florida and that could have lead to Bush’s victory – that could be.
I know that members of the government (congressional members) and your Miami family took you to Disney World and did all of this stuff with you, but do you think at the time, these events were all done for the wrong reasons? Do you feel like they were trying to make you want to stay?
I think that at first, my family didn’t want to harm anyone and there were no ill intentions. When people who had responsibilities to the government started coming in – people that were of that anti-Castro, anti-Cuban group – a lot of those people started visiting the house and that’s when politics and money started playing a role. My family didn’t have money to give me all the toys that I got and for it to end up being a campaign. It was the interference of those people from the Cuban community in the United States, and people from anti-revolutionary groups in the United States that started to convince and incentivize my uncles to not return me. I do believe, like you said, that they tried to buy me. But what I remember is that a lot of the time they put me in front of a television with a little car or with different toys. When I would say, “…. those are toys that I like,” they would buy it for me right away. For a child that age, you can fill him with toys and it becomes easy to buy him, and that is what they tried to do. They kept me occupied.
Have you had any contact with your relatives in Miami?
Those that agreed that I should be returned to my dad continue to come to Cuba and we have a great relationship. They just left two months ago and they are already planning on coming back to see me. They tried to mediate with the rest of the family but it has mostly been unsuccessful.
When you see photos of you as a child in Miami, does it bring back any particular feelings?
I think that the situation is strange. If I look at the moments that I was in Miami, the sensation I feel is emptiness. Those moments remind me of losing my mother. My cousin Mari Elesi tried to take me in as a mother and tried to make me happy. I had happy moments, because they tried to keep my mind occupied with Disney, with presents, and with toys. What I was left with, though, was emptiness because I barely even had time to miss my mom or my dad. I felt that I was alone and I didn’t have the opportunity of giving my mom respect or remembrance.
Can you tell me any one specific thing about the event? Something special? Perhaps a small detail or something that you would like for me to know.
When I came to, I was already in the hospital. The last thing I remember was being in the raft with my mom and a friend. Then I remember that I woke up and it was just my mom and I. Then I remember that it was just me. I don’t remember the rescue or anything else. I just remember being in the hospital when all my uncles and cousins began to visit. I didn’t remember them. To me, they were strangers. I remember that speaking to my dad was difficult because when my dad would call; sometimes they wouldn’t pass me the phone. Other times they would start giving me food and my mouth would be full … so that I wasn’t allowed to talk. They would tell me, “look, we are going to convince him to come over here,” and “look, say this…don’t speak badly of Cuba or Fidel [Castro]”. I remember that they incentivized me a lot to tell my dad that I didn’t want to see him anymore.
I remember a few days before they [federal agents] picked me up, I told my dad that I didn’t want to live in Cuba with him. Then, they started talking bad about my dad. I remember the night I was sleeping and I randomly woke up and in that moment, the doorbell rang and we all ran into the closet. Next I remember them [US Federal Agents] taking me to where my dad was and I remember being scared. I was confused, but after seeing my dad, everything changed.
My dad always spoke of the people of Cuba. He told me that everyone in Cuba had gone out to the street and there was an outcry demanding I be returned to Cuba. He also told me that the person who made it possible for us to be together was Fidel, and that he was our friend and would be waiting on us in Cuba. I was told a lot of bad things about Fidel when I was with my uncles. In fact, they told me that there was a devil following him. When I finally met him, he knew how to gain my friendship because every time that he was with me, he became a kid and he would play with me.
After those moments, my Dad and I never spoke of the incident for many years. Then when I turned fifteen I started asking questions and he began to answer them and that’s when I began to understand what happened and I started seeing the videos and the images, and I understood all of it – why the people of Cuba wanted to meet me and wanted to take my picture. Then I started to feel pressure because I understood that so many Cubans had gone out to the street to protest and ask for my return … without even knowing me. And then I started to feel pressure and I felt indebted. I started feeling that any disappointment or any bad thing that I did would result in them saying “We fought for that boy? For that?”
Is there anything specific that happened to you back in 1999 and up until the time you were returned to Cuba that helped to shape you and make you a better person?
I do believe that I have a very defined purpose thanks to everything I’ve lived through. If I can mediate so that the Cuban and North American people have a better relationship, I will mediate. I don’t like politics, but if one day I have to be involved so that the people of Cuba could have a government to its standards and feel restored, and Cubans could live a good life and have everything they deserve, I would do it. That is how it changed me. It gave me purpose.
Why do you think your mother wanted to take you to the United States?
I think that, essentially, she was pressured by her partner at the time, which had already made one trip to the United States and returned to Cuba. I think that Cubans migrate for the possibility of living in the United States and reaching the American Dream. There are many who haven’t reached it, but there are many who have, too. I think that a lot of them leave, not because of political problems, but because of the economic shortcomings of Cuba and because of the difficulty in reaching their dreams.
Fidel Castro is obviously an iconic political figure. People are fascinated with him, both good and bad. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Fidel before he passed?
When my dad saw that my uncles didn’t want to return me, he turned to a friend of his, and that friend helped to get the word to Fidel. Fidel gave my Dad the opportunity that, if he wanted to, he’d take him to the United States to live with me. My dad said no, that what he wanted was to have me with him in Cuba.
The first thing he gave me was a book and a box of candy, and he said, “be careful, don’t eat the book and read the candy box.” He became interested in seeing me grow up. He would visit my house and if I was swimming, he would be interested in me learning to swim well, and he would look for a teacher that could give me swimming lessons. He was such a joy to be around. There were many times with him that I wouldn’t even talk because I was embarrassed. I felt intimidated because he’s such a grand person and an important figure. I was satisfied with seeing him, hugging him, and so Fidel did a lot that made an impression on me. When I finished sixth grade, he was there and made a speech where he described me and said everything he knew about me. And to finish it off he said that he considered me his friend. For a boy that was eleven or twelve years old to know that the president of a country considered you a friend was impactful.
Afterwards, I had a lot of opportunities to speak with him, but the last time was when I had breakfast alone with him before graduating from the twelfth grade. I had to decide on a career
to study at the university. I had the opportunity to speak with him and ask him a lot of questions so that he could try to help me choose a career. He wouldn’t answer, or he would change his opinion, and afterwards I saw that that he wasn’t interested in what I chose. He wanted me to choose for myself. I realized that much later.
People knew me as the person that Fidel dedicated time to and dedicated resources for. That also gave me the responsibility of not letting him down. I was able to meet the human part of Fidel. He united a whole people to defend a boy, a boy that he didn’t know, a boy from a humble family, which had no reason to interest him. He wanted to make sure that kids were getting everything they could, that schools were functioning right, and that hospitals were good. That’s why I have admiration and respect for him.
In the United States, you are still a celebrity. What do you think about the possibility that Americans like me can establish a friendship with Cubans like you? Do you think that’s a good start in helping us to tell the story of Cuba back home?
We don’t have to come from the same ideology, instead we simply need to respect each other and be friends. I can show them [Americans] Cuba and I can get to know the United States. There’s a lot the United States has done for me and I can’t turn my back on that. I can’t turn my back on the people I owe a lot to. I am interested in learning your history, in meeting your people, and of course [we can establish a friendship].
Well, consider us friends!
Ok. Thank you!
In conclusion, Elian is a very bright young man. He clearly sees things through a different lens than most of us here in the United States. But, in order to get a fair and balanced understanding of the events in 1999/2000, it’s important to hear both sides. He seems to be happy. He’s still very close with his father and other relatives in Cuba. He’s working as an engineer now and he’s engaged to a very sweet young lady who quietly joined us for the interview. I believe that cooperation between the two governments is long overdue and that it just might take someone like Elian to make that happen. I hope that we can begin to resolve some of our differences and start to see better cooperation with our island neighbors. I believe that there’s more that binds us together than should tear us apart. Perhaps this new decade will see improvements. If Elian is ready, so too is the Global Diplomat.