The Washington Times / August 15, 2005
By Larry Luxner
Late last month, as Cubans were cleaning up from Hurricane Dennis, President Fidel Castro made a point of traveling to the coastal city of Cárdenas to attend a party for Elián González.
The occasion: Elián’s graduation from sixth grade.
“I have the privilege to be his friend,” said the beaming, 79-year-old revolutionary, in a speech broadcast on state television and published Jul. 22 in the Communist Party daily Granma.
Elián, now 11, was the focus of an international legal battle five years ago between his father in Cuba and his extended family in South Florida, both of whom claimed custody.
Discovered in November 1999 floating alone and clinging to an inner tube in the middle of the Florida Straits, Elián was one of just three survivors of a group of 14 Cubans who had set off from Cárdenas, hoping to reach Florida. His mother was among those who died.
The boy was taken to his relatives in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. Those relatives claimed it would be a travesty of justice to send him back to Cuba, but U.S. courts ruled he should be returned home. After seven months of legal wrangling, Elián was forcibly removed by federal agents and reunited with his father in June 2000.
That unpleasant memory is relived every day at Casa Elián — a free yet somewhat bizarre tourist attraction dedicated to the famous boy and maintained by the bitter relatives he left behind. Located at 2319 NW 2nd Street in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, the house where Elián González briefly lived is a shrine to all the virtues he represents: innocence, faith in Jesus Christ, patriotism for America — and contempt for tyranny.
Yet from the outside, this makeshift museum couldn’t look tackier.
A broken-down Cadillac is parked out front, a black plastic garbage bag covering the smashed window on the driver’s side. Other cars straddle the sidewalk, despite the “No Parking” sign hanging on the chain-link fence.
A large wooden crucifix strung with Christmas lights is nailed to the side of the house; nearby, U.S. and Cuban flags are draped prominently from bedroom windows. And an outdoor poster supports the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, a recent illegal gathering of anti-Castro dissidents in Havana.
Hanging prominently betwen two palm trees in the unmowed front yard is a portrait of Elián and his mother, with the inscription “Con mi sangre, pongo tu nombre, porque tu, madre, me hiciste un hombre” (With my blood, I write your name, because you have made me a man.)
An open door beckons visitors inside, where they’re greeted with a painting of the Virgen de la Caridad — and a little altar at which has been placed Bibles, ceramic figurines of Jesus, a toy rattle, a scale-model yellow Volkswagen, a book about baby dolphins and a bumper sticker that says “More Dollars to Castro, Less Freedom for Cuba.”
About 15 or 20 people a day visit the house, says Delfín González, a great-uncle of Elián who keeps the house open at his own expense. “People come here from all over, and from as far away as Argentina, Poland, the Czech Republic and Japan,” said González, interviewed by CubaNews as he sat in the backyard listening to Radio Mambí.
The 70-year-old exile, a part-time handyman who left Cuba in 1978, says that between property taxes, electric bills and other expenses, it costs about $500 a month to keep the house open. But González is happy to do it, and he’s got five books filled with signatures of people and sympathetic donors who have visited over the years.
“We have to maintain this place for history,” he told CubaNews. “This is not a business, but an open house for people to learn about what happened to Elián. It was such an injustice.”
And every available square inch of space in the tiny house, it seems, is designed to reinforce that point.
The walls are cluttered with photographs and paintings of Elián and his family. A framed letter dated Oct. 2, 2003, and signed by President Bush thanks Delfín González for his patriotism. There’s also an autographed card from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and campaign posters advertising “Mel Martínez for U.S. Senate.”
Hanging in a bedroom closet are all the clothes Elián wore, while the bed Elián slept in is roped off by yellow police tape. Various items are carefully — almost religiously — arranged on the bedspread, including a stuffed bear, a folded U.S. flag and a portrait of José Martí.
On the floor are bicycles, tricycles, bats and balls. There’s also a glass case filled with toy trucks and remote-control Jeeps donated by well-wishers. In fact, four rooms — not counting the bathroom — are filled with such sentimental tchotchkes.
The final room is dominated by a poster of young boys against an ominous backdrop of Hitler, Stalin and Fidel, and the slogan: “A crime against a child is a crime against humanity. Wake up, America.”
Of course, Casa Elián wouldn’t be complete without an enormous blowup of the notorious AP photograph of National Guardsmen wearing night goggles and taking a terrified Elián by force from the arms of his loving Miami family — right under a huge banner that says “Clinton/Reno: April 13, 2000: A day that will live in infamy forever.”
Since that “infamous” day, Elián himself has lived a rather ordinary life in Cárdenas. Besides attending school and playing with his friends, he earns money as a waiter at a nearby resort, though Cuban officials go to great lengths to shield him from reporters.
According to a Jul. 23 article in The Independent of London, “Elián can occasionally be seen sitting in the front row at Cuban government events, where he appears comfortable, if a little bored, in the company of Mr. Castro, who in turn seems to dote on him. The publicity-conscious Cuban leader has always been aware of the importance of Elián growing up into a happy young man who is proud to be Cuban.”
Yet his great-uncle insists Elián isn’t happy at all.
“The boy wanted to be here [in Miami], but he’s obliged to live in an absurd system,” complained González. “Fidel doesn’t let us communicate with him. He uses Elián as a political instrument. Neither Elián nor his father agrees with the regime. He went back to Cuba only because the Clinton administration pressured him to.”
The aging exile added: “The government thinks Elián’s going to forget about us, but he’ll never forget.”
And neither will the rest of the world, if he has his way.