September 05, 2017

Elián on CNN

I wasn’t surprised by last week’s new CNN Films’ documentary Elián, which looks at the saga of Elián Gonzalez.

To refresh your memory; just before G.W. Bush’s first historic and trend-setting Presidential election, Elián was found at sea tied to an inner-tube by two American fishermen 3 miles off the coast of Florida. He was turned over to his American family, who refused to hand him back to his father in Cuba. Eventually he was removed at gunpoint by federal agents and returned to his father.  The dispute became a Presidential campaign issue that may have cost Al Gore the election.
At the time, Elián became a revealing showcase for the painful conflict that exists within Cuban-American families and is constantly fueled by our approach to relations with Cuba.
The CNN documentary doesn’t take long to embrace a (mostly) Miami-Cuban point of view. A few minutes into it we’re given a stilted history of U.S.-Cuba relations as a background to Elián’s journey across the Florida Straits. Facts are glossed over as if we’re sitting in a neighborhood bar on Calle Ocho, where even a sudden rainstorm can be blamed on Castro.
Surprisingly, the narrative does mention the hardliner violence and terrorism of the 1960s and ‘70s—by Cubans of one mind (hardline-anti-Castro) to Cubans of a different mind (peaceful relations with Cuba)—which was surprising to see reported at all. And that brief mention may be where any attempt at historical accuracy within this documentary ends.
After all, “Castro confiscated private property and nationalized American-owned oil refineries…” (apparently for no reason) which left us little choice but to swing the hammer. “With Castro drawing closer to the Soviets, the American government punished Cuba with an economic embargo, then it backed an invasion by Cuban exiles at Bay of Pigs.”
WHAT!!?? Did I hear that correctly? “Backed…??” Any mention of who planned, funded, recruited and ran every detail of the operation? Here, the documentary misses a great opportunity to show JFK’s speech in which he assumes responsibility for the invasion.   
These and similar inaccuracies are presented almost casually as background context. “This is the story of a little boy from Cuba whose mother died bringing him to freedom in the United States,” says the narrator (Raúl Esparza) at the beginning, leaving no doubt about the narrative’s point of view. (Did the ghost of Jorge Mas Canosa write the script?)
The show completely avoids discussing Elián’s mother, Elizabet Brotons Rodríguez, the woman who took a 6-year old boy into the Florida Straights without telling the boy’s father. It doesn’t mention that her boyfriend, Lázaro Munero, charged $1,000 per person to most of the passengers, or that he’d served time in a Cuban jail for burglary.  Elizabet’s true reasons and motivations have been rarely explored beyond the realm of blaming Castro, and are not addressed here at all. Her decision to bring her 6-year-old-son on such a journey is described repeatedly as “brave.”
“I survived because of my mom…” says a happy 24-year-old Elián in Cuba, and that’s about where her story ends, except for some claims to her “brave sacrifice for her son…” (I paraphrase)
What the show does well (and by accident) is showcase the cost of our political differences to Cuban families. This is the real price for Cuban independence that families are still paying to this day.
This suffering is clearly seen in Marisleysis’ face… who became attached to Elián and soon became the best case that could be made for keeping him here. Even back then, I felt sure that her feelings were of true love for the boy, not political opportunism or “finders’ keepers” ideology. The same can’t be said for most of those around her.
Since the beginning, young Elián was treated like a prize to be paraded… and you can see on his eyes how uncomfortable this was for him.  Soon his face was on posters and T-shirts, and everywhere he went the media was there.
When it became clear that Elián would be returned to his father in Cuba, the tension rose another notch. In Miami, the crowds took to the streets, stopping traffic and chanting for Elián to stay. The media circus was parked outside Elián’s door, and the police had to close the street.
 “I’m a father, and the boy should be with his father,” says a man on the street who suddenly needs protection from an angry crowd. “You don’t have a clue about what being in a free society is…” he says, “you have no respect for other people’s opinion.”  You can see members of the crowd shouting that he’s a … communist.

As tension and passion rose like a heatwave, the media blitz grew to include Diane Sawyer, The Today Show, Larry King and others. You couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing Elián.
As soon as the story went national, leaders of the anti-Castro movement descended on Elián like vultures. Within days, GMA jumped at the chance to reunite Elián with Donato, one of the fishermen that rescued him. Elián appears in Donato’s arms, not understanding a word that’s being said, as the fisherman refers to the boy as “a gift from God.”   
“I didn’t want to meet anyone,” recalls Elián of those times. “I’m shy.”
In some less-than-subtle ways, this (mostly) right-leaning documentary surgically white-washes the obvious opportunism that Elián’s tragedy provided. Polls at the time already reflected Americans’ willingness to embrace peaceful relations with Cuba, and the 6-year-old became the standard-bearer for the outdated anti-movement. Right after the first commercial break, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is heard saying, “people are literally dying to flee Cuba.”
“We have a role to play in protecting freedom,” says a younger and visibly  decaffeinated George Bush, “and when people risk everything to come, even if they’re a five-year-old kid, they ought to be allowed to stay.” He didn’t mention that our own “left-foot-dry-foot” policy, which he supported, dictates that he be sent back. But it’s often difficult to make sense of a law that is best described with “foot” metaphors. Still, I’d hope that by now somebody has explained to Mr. Bush the difference between making a choice to cross the ocean on a small boat and going where your mom says when you’re six years old.
At various times, little Elián is photographed with an American flag in the hands of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who flashes a permanent wide smile at the camera as Elián leans away in horror… reminding me of Johnathan Harker’s journal from the third chapter of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In what may be one of the all-time low points for broadcast journalism, networks played a videotape made by Elián's American family in which the boy, looking at the camera, says he wants to stay in the U.S. He points a finger and tells his dad to “stay or go, but leave me here.” You can decide if the boy looks coached or is being directed during the taping.
CNN’s Elián doesn’t clarify how, after arriving in Cuba, the boy was finally left to have a private life with his father, stepmother and baby brother, ending the media circus that signified his stay with his American family. Sure, at times Castro would pop in, but not for photo ops, though the day of his return is celebrated every year.  
It appears that over time, Castro and Elián developed a real friendship, but the program doesn’t emphasize enough how Castro dragged out the ordeal, perhaps to let the world see his enemies up close.  
It turned out that Cuba loves Elián as much as Elián loves Cuba. He acknowledges that he became “Cuba’s son.” “The Cuban people made me their family, their son,” he says.”
“God wanted him here for freedom,” says Marisleysis early on, “and he’ll get it.”  Later in the show Elián makes an odd reference to seeing Castro as “God.” 
If anything, CNN Films’ Elián stands as evidence of how our sad history with Cuba (and most of Latin America) is not reflected honestly in our culture. The expanded results of our obvious self-deception are now echoed in a bizarre Trump reality that’s dividing our country and challenging our Democracy.
“He’s got no future, no life in Cuba,” says a passionate Miami woman before Elián’s return. Her prediction seems to have been incorrect, which makes Elián much less lovable to Cuban-Americans today. “The real story of what happened is not written anywhere,” says 24-year old Elián. “All that’s left is our memories of the people and how they lived.”

Elián was produced by Jigsaw Productions, Fine Point Films, and provides a great example of a missed opportunity to tell the truth. The topic deserves a more honest and serious approach.

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