HAVANA — Elián González has the same large, expressive eyes he had 23 years ago when an international custody battle made him the face of tense relations between Cuba and the United States.
Now 29 years old, González is dabbling in Cuban politics. He recently entered his country’s congress hoping to help his people at a time of record emigration and heightened tension between the two coastal neighbors.
“From Cuba we can do a lot so that we have a more solid country, and I owe it to the Cubans,” he said during an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. «That is what I am going to try to do from my position, from this place in Congress, to contribute to making Cuba a better country.»
González has given only a handful of interviews since he was unknowingly thrust into the geopolitical spotlight as a child. In 1999, at just 5 years old, he and his mother were aboard a Cuban immigrant ship headed for Florida when the ship capsized in the Florida Straits. His mother and 10 other people died while González, tied to an inner tube, drifted in open water to his rescue.
Granted asylum under US refugee rules at the time, González went to live with his great-uncle, a member of the Cuban exile community in Miami, which is often a center of fierce criticism of the government of Cuba. In Cuba, his father pleaded with then-President Fidel Castro for help. Castro led protests with hundreds of thousands of people demanding the return of little Elián. Anti-Castro groups in Miami are pressing for him to stay in the US.
The tug-of-war quickly drew the world’s attention and became emblematic of the testy feelings between the two neighboring nations. Then-United States Attorney General Janet Reno ruled that the child should be returned to her father, but Gonzalez’s relatives refused. AP photojournalist Alan Diaz captured the moment when armed immigration agents seized González in a Miami home, and the photo later won a Pulitzer Prize.
«Not having my mother has been difficult, it has been a burden, but it has not been an obstacle when I have had a father who has defended me and has been by my side,» González told AP.
He himself is the father now, of a 2-year-old girl. He works for a state-owned company that facilitates tourism in the island nation his mother left behind, underscoring the alternative path his life has taken since his return home.
What’s more, he recently became a legislator.
In April, González was sworn in as a member of Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power, effectively Cuba’s congress. He represents Cárdenas, a town in the Matanzas province about 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Havana where he lived until his mother took him to the sea. He still lives in the province.
Dressed in black pants and a T-shirt, with a discreet braided bracelet on his right hand and his wedding ring on his left, González was interviewed at the Capitol in Havana, the renovated headquarters of Congress.
“I think the most important thing is that I have grown like the other young people. I have grown up in Cuba,” she said.
For years, his father made it almost impossible to get close to the boy. 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, González was a military cadet and later became an industrial engineer. Because the seats in the Cuban Congress are unpaid, he will continue to work at his tourism job.
The legislative body has faced criticism for the lack of opposition voices and for carrying out the agenda set by the country’s leadership.
González’s legislative term comes amid a historic emigration from the crisis-stricken Caribbean island, as many young Cubans seek a new life in the US, just as their mother did.
It also comes at a time of heightened tensions between the two nations. There have been allegations that Cuba hosted a Chinese spy base, which Cuba strongly denies. Meanwhile, Cuba claims that Biden has yet to soften harsh policies enacted by former US President Donald Trump that target the island, while the US signals the resumption of some flights and the sending of remittances.
Amid a deepening political and energy crisis in Cuba, González blamed decades of US sanctions choking the island’s economy as the root of many of Cuba’s problems, echoing many in the government. He said that he believes in Cuba’s model of providing free access to education and health services, among other things, but acknowledged that there is a long way to go for that to be perfected.
Despite harsh prison terms handed down by Cuban courts and punishments advocated by the communist government, González said his people have the right to demonstrate. But he added that the causes of the current crises must be analyzed before condemning the state.
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, like my mother,» he said. «My message will always be that (those who leave) do everything possible so that Cuba has a status (without sanctions) equal to any country in the world.»