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Elian Gonzalez is stepping into Cuban politics

Onetime child symbol of the US blockade Elian Gonzalez has been elected to Cuba’s congress, writes ANDREA RODRIGUEZ

Elian Gonzalez has the same big, expressive eyes he did 23 years ago when an international custody battle transformed him into the face of the long-strained relations between Cuba and the United States.

Now 29, Gonzalez is stepping into Cuban politics. He was recently elected to his country’s legislature with hopes of helping his people at a time of record emigration and heightened US tension toward its seaside neighbour.

“From Cuba, we can do a lot so that we have a more solid country, and I owe it to Cubans,” he said during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. “That is what I’m going to try to do from my position, from this place in Congress — to contribute to making Cuba a better country.”

Gonzalez has given only a handful of interviews since he was unwittingly thrust into the geopolitical spotlight as a boy. In 1999, at just five years old, he and his mother were aboard a boat of Cuban migrants headed toward Florida when the boat capsized in the Florida Straits. His mother and 10 others died while Gonzalez, tied to an inner tube, drifted in open water until his rescue.

Granted asylum under US refugee rules at the time, Gonzalez went to live with his great uncle, a member of the Cuban exile community in Miami that is often a centre of fierce attacks on Cuba’s government.

In Cuba, his father begged then-President Fidel Castro for help. Castro led protests with hundreds of thousands of people demanding little Elian’s return. Anti-Castro groups in Miami pressed for him to stay in the US.

The tug-of-war quickly gained the world’s attention and became emblematic of the policy of the US toward the small socialist island. Then–US Attorney General Janet Reno ruled the boy should be returned to his father, but Gonzalez’s relatives refused.

AP photojournalist Alan Diaz captured the moment when armed immigration agents seized Gonzalez in a Miami home, and the photo later won a Pulitzer Prize.

“Not having my mum has been difficult, it has been a burden, but it has not been an obstacle when I have had a father who has stood up for me and been by my side,” Gonzalez says.

He is a father himself now, of a two-year-old daughter. He works for a state company that facilitates tourism to the island nation his mother left, underscoring the alternative track his life has followed since his homecoming.

What’s more, he recently became a lawmaker.

In April, Gonzalez was sworn in as a member of Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, the national legislature. He represents Cardenas, a town in Matanzas province about 80 miles east of Havana where he lived until his mother took him to sea. He still lives in the province.

Dressed in black trousers and T-shirt, with a discreet braided bracelet on his right hand and his wedding ring on his left, Gonzalez was interviewed in Havana’s Capitol, the renovated seat of congress.

“I think the most important thing is that I have grown up like other young people. I have grown up in Cuba,” he said.

For years, his father made it nearly impossible to get close to the child. From afar, the boy could sometimes be seen playing with other children or accompanying his father to political events. Castro would visit him on his birthday.

Over the years, Gonzalez was a military cadet and later became an industrial engineer. Because Cuba’s congressional positions are unpaid, he will continue to work his tourism job.

Gonzalez’s legislative term comes amid historic emigration from the crisis-stricken Caribbean island, as a rough economy pushes many young Cubans to seek a way to the US — just as his mother did.

It also comes at a time when US policy toward Cuba has again taken on a Cold War standing.

The US has alleged that Cuba hosted a Chinese spy base, which Cuba adamantly denies. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has yet to ease tough policies enacted by former US president Donald Trump that target the island, although the Biden administration points to the resumption of some flights and sending of remittances as evidence it hasn’t just stuck to Trump’s orders.

Amid a deepening economic and energy crisis in Cuba, Gonzalez cast blame on decades of US sanctions stifling the island’s economy as the root of many of Cuba’s problems.

He said he believes in Cuba’s model of providing free access to education and health services among other things, but acknowledged there is a long way to go for that to be perfected.

He also had kind words for the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who, like his mother, chose to emigrate.

“I respect all those who made the decision to leave Cuba, I respect those who do so today, just as I do my mum,” he said. “My message will always be that (those who leave) do all they can to ensure that Cuba has a status (without sanctions) equal to any country in the world.”

 Andrea Rodriguez is Havana correspondent of Associated Press.


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