25 November 1999

A 5-year-old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, is rescued by fishermen while floating in an inner tube off the Florida coast.

In 25 November 1999, 5-year-old Elián González became the center of international controversy when he was found floating alone on an inner tube near Miami after leaving Castro’s Cuba with his mother.

Elián González was born in 1993 to divorced parents. In 1999, his mother brought him along when she decided to escape the Castro regime, but drowned during the journey. Florida fishermen found 5-year-old Elián floating alone off the coast, near Fort Lauderdale. Although his Cuban-American relatives fought to keep him in the United States, Elián’s father insisted on his return to Cuba. The Clinton administration ultimately backed the father’s claim and extracted Elián forcibly in 2000.

Born December 6, 1993, in Cárdenas, Cuba, Elián González became the focus of an international political uproar in late 1999 and early 2000 after he was rescued from a boat accident that killed his mother and a small group of other Cuban refugees trying to reach Florida in November of 1999.

Elián’s parents, Juan Miguel González and Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez, were both natives of Cárdenas, Cuba. The couple divorced in 1991 after six years of marriage, but continued their efforts to have a child until 1993, when Elián was born. The couple separated for good in 1996, but both remained close with their son, who spent up to five nights a week with his father or one of his grandmothers and the rest of the time with his mother, who had moved in with her boyfriend, Lazaro Rafael Munero. Rodríguez took Elián with her when she and Munero decided to flee the harsh economic conditions of Cuba in a boat bound for America. His mother and ten others aboard their vessel would not survive the journey.

After two Florida fishermen found Elián stranded on an inner tube floating offshore near Fort Lauderdale on Thanksgiving Day, members of his extended family took him into their care. By the time the youngster celebrated his sixth birthday in December of 1999, he had become a symbol of the long-running feud between the community of Cuban exiles living in the United States and the Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Even as Elián’s Miami relatives, particularly his great-uncles Lázaro and Delfin González and his cousin, Marisleysis González, insisted that he stay in the U.S. and gain the new life his mother had wanted for him, Castro and the boy’s family in Cuba — and eventually the U.S. government — stood behind Juan Miguel González, who wanted his son back.

After months of legal squabbling, endless press coverage, and heated demonstrations in both Miami and Cuba, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, with the full backing of President Bill Clinton, ordered that Elián’s relatives in Miami surrender him to U.S. Department of Justice custody. When they refused, Reno ordered a dramatic and controversial dawn rescue mission that unfolded in the early morning hours of April 22, when federal agents, armed with submachine guns, forced their way into the Miami home of Lazáro González and seized a terrified Elián. Alan Diaz, a photographer for the Associated Press, captured a dramatic image of the moment in a photograph that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography.