From an editorial Friday in the Chicago Tribune:
Elian Gonzalez came to America the hard way in 1999. He was not quite 6 when he set out from Cuba in an aluminum boat with his mother and 12 others who hoped to make the 90-mile trip across the Florida Straits without being turned back by the U.S. Coast Guard.
But the boat capsized in a storm. The boy’s mother and 10 others drowned. He was rescued by two fishermen, who found him floating alone in an inner tube. Handed off to relatives in Miami, he was soon the center of an international custody dispute.
Now he says he’d like to return to the U.S. – as a turista. It could happen.
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In an interview with ABC News last week, Gonzalez – now an industrial engineering student at the University of Matanzas – said he’d like to go to a baseball game, visit museums and thank the people who cared for him after he was plucked from the sea.
The monthslong battle for custody of the young Elian became a proxy for the bitter standoff between Cuba and the United States.
The U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961 and sought to cripple the communist nation with a trade embargo that survives to this day in deference to South Florida’s politically potent Cuban exile community.
The Miami relatives who wanted to raise the boy in America were fiercely defended by those exiles. Surrendering him to his father meant returning him to the homeland they’d fled themselves – and to Fidel Castro, who’d confiscated their property.
Castro accused the U.S. of kidnapping. He demanded the U.S. follow its own laws and send the boy back.
The U.S. courts agreed. The Miami relatives – and the protesters camped outside their Little Havana home – resisted. And the world awoke on April 22, 2000, to a shocking image of a federal marshal pointing a rifle at a terrified Elian, clinging to the neck of one of his rescuers in a closet.
Reunited with his father, Elian returned to Cuba, a trophy for the struggling revolution. Castro attended his 7th birthday party and trotted him out for state events, dressed in a communist youth uniform. As a member of Cuba’s Militant Union of Young Communists, Elian spoke against the U.S. embargo at a youth conference in Ecuador in 2013.
U.S. support for the embargo is fading, finally – even in South Florida, to the dismay of the aging hard-liners. Their children and grandchildren want to travel freely to and from Cuba. They want Cuba to prosper. They are ready to move on. And it’s happening.
In December, the governments of Cuba and the U.S. reached an agreement to restore diplomatic relations. President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions, including opening an embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961.
Lifting the embargo will take an act of Congress, and the sooner the better. In the meantime, Obama has the authority to make other changes, including easing limits on banking and travel. This month, the administration issued licenses to several U.S. companies that, pending approval from Cuba, will provide passenger ferry service between the nations. There are still restrictions on who can come and go from either country. But the tide is turning.
So when a reporter asked a grown-up Elian Gonzalez what country he’d most like to visit, it was perfectly reasonable for him to answer “los Estados Unidos.” He can look forward to a much safer voyage.