top.gif (1343 bytes)

On November 25, 1999, three Cuban refugees were rescued off the coast of Florida. It was a story made for Thanksgiving, and one the refugees, six-year old Elián Gonzolas, quickly captured the imaginations of two countries. The situation, though, would soon be overwhelmed by politics. Castro demanded that the boy be returned to be his father in Cuba; the Cuban-American community insisted that he belonged in the United States. The Thanksgiving rescue story, and Elián himself, would soon be lost within the controversy.

The dispute proved a godsend for Castro. By the late 90s, his Revolution had seen better days, and Elián was a popular cause perfectly designed to activate a demoralized Cuba. In the United States, and more specifically, in southern Florida, the event proved more troublesome. Outwardly, the Cuban-American community projected a show of unity: Elián, under no circumstances, should be returned to Cuba. Secretly though, many believed that he belonged with his father, but were reluctant to speak out: the community had shown little tolerance toward dissenters in the past.

The tension in southern Florida also spilled over into the non-Cuban population. Other minorities—African and Latin Americans—grew tired of the protests and wanted no part of the battle over Elián. This resentment stemmed from the belief that Cuban-American political leaders in Miami had done little for their communities. They also believed that there were more pressing social problems than whether or not one child was returned to Cuba.

In the end, Elián became the symbol that would bring out deep emotions and resentments within these groups. By the time everyone had taken a position, Elián faded into the background. When the courts decided that he should be returned to Cuba and his Miami relatives refused to turn him over, the situation boiled over. The southern Florida community began to openly question Cuban Americans’ commitment to the United States. If they were unwilling to obey its laws, then perhaps they didn’t belong in the United States either.

Finally Elián was returned to Cuba, leaving everyone else with a series of unanswerable questions. Would Cuban Americans be able to maintain their sense of community and anti-Castro unanimity during future conflicts? Would non-Cuban Americans be willing to allow a small political group to continue to play the central role in setting Cuban foreign policy? Would political leaders in southern Florida be willing to look at the causes of African and Latin-American resentment that surfaced during these events? In the end, Saving Elián tells the viewer little he or she didn’t know about the six-year old boy who spent seven months in the United States in 1999. Instead, he or she receives a penetrating and disturbing look at the underlying forces that erupted during his stay.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Other Review

Frontline Web Site

Documentary Films .Net