"Elian": In Cuba, Miami and beyond, the story still stirs passions

As the new millennium began, there were fierce arguments about the future of young Elian Gonzalez. Now, 17 years later, an intriguing documentary has re-visited the people on both sides. Here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Clearly, this wasn't
your usual TV interview.

Elian Gonzalez had
once been the best-known child on Earth. Now he was being asked to
recall a controversy that had drawn cascades of emotion.

Many people had been
discussing it – loudly and passionately – for decades ... but not
him. “My father and I tried to almost never talk about it,” he
says in “Elian,” which debuts Thursday on CNN.

Trevor Birney, the
documentary's producer, could sense that. Watching his son being
interviewed, he said, Juan Miguel Gonzalez reacted like someone who
had rarely heard the story. “Juan Miguel cried for most of the
three hours.”

There were also
strong emotions on the other side of the issue,Birney said. “What I
hadn't factored in was how much trauma remains.”

Certainly, this was
an issue that seemed designed to rip emotions:

Donato Dalrymple was
fishing off the coast of Florida, on Thanksgiving week of 1999, when
he found Elian, almost 6, in an inner tube. “It was definitely a
miracle,” Dalrymple says in the film.

The boy had left
Cuba with his mother, her boyfriend and others, but their boat sank
and most of the people drowned. In Miami, Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's
great-uncle, was given temporary care; Lazaro's daughter Marisleysis,
21, became a prime caregiver. The the fights began.

Cuban-American community – with a deep dislike of Castro's Cuba –
wanted Elian to stay; his father wanted him returned to Cuba. Courts
ruled in the father's favor; in a pre-dawn raid, on the day before
Easter, federal authorities seized Elian and returned him to his

In Miami, that
brought rage against the Clinton administration – strong enough to
tip votes in the state that decided the Bush/Gore election. “Had
the Elian event been handled better, we might not have had the Iraq
war,” former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, says in the film..

Birney can relate to
that intensity. “I come from an area of conflict – Belfast, North
Ireland – and I understand how this can happen,” he said. So he
proposed a documentary, looking back at the situation. CNN agreed
immediately, he said; the key people hesitated ... then agreed to do

There was
Marisleysis, who had been in an emotional whirlwind. She was a key
spokesperson and a loving surrogate mother ... then saw Elian
snatched away after five months. “She was a young, 21-year-old
woman and suddenly it was all gone,” Birney said. “It was a
struggle to get on with her life.”

She started a hair
salon, married and had children, Birney said. “She's a very busy,
proud woman” who still would like to see Elian some day.

Elian's own life is
also crowded. He had a normal-enough boyhood, Birney said, except for
the fact that he sometimes met Fidel Castro. “The family did
benefit from knowing Castro.”

Elian, now 23,
graduated from college and has an engineering job at a factory,Birney
said. “He has a girlfriend and wants to start a home.”

In the film, he
speaks glowingly of Cuba and harshly of Americans ... except
Marisleysis: “I think she tried to give me the love I didn't have
at that moment .... She was just a girl.”

And she was
surrounded, Birney feels, by well-meaning forces who dug in too
deeply. “They overplayed their hand. It was a no-win situation.”

-- “Elian,” CNN;
debut from 10 p.m. to midnight Thursday (an hour later than
originally scheduled), rerunning from 2-4 a.m.

-- Also 10 p.m.
Saturday, rerunning at 2 a.m.

-- Part of an increased schedule for CNN Films; plans call for "The Reagan Show" on Sept. 4, a "9/11" rerun on Sept. 10 and "Legion of Brothers" on Sept. 24.