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
D. Lankford, Jr.