New Documentary Elián Remembers the Boy Caught at the Center of Cold War U.S.-Cuban Relations

File photo of Elian Gonzalez waving to his fellow schoolmates on his arrival to Havana, Cuba. (Reuters)

It was a gut-wrenching story that captured the hearts and imagination of the world: a beautiful five-year-old boy was floating alone in the Florida Straits in an inner tube on Thanksgiving morning in 1999 after his mother drowned in a daring voyage from Cuba to the U.S.

In a matter of hours, the innocent boy, Elián Gonzalez, would unknowingly find himself at the center of an explosive international custody battle and trapped in the quagmire of Cold War U.S.-Cuba relations as his Miami-based cousins argued he should stay with them and refused to return him to his father in Cuba. When Fidel Castro got involved, the story developed into a Shakespearean-like drama, Cuban style. Even the Pope had to intervene.

After months of legal battles, protests, back and forth indictments, the boy was removed from his Miami cousin’s home by border patrol agents with guns blazing.

Nearly two decades later, filmmakers revisit the explosive story and weave together fresh interviews with Elián, now 23 years old, his father Juan Miguel, and their Miami-based cousin, Marisleysis, in a powerful new documentary executive produced by Academy Award winning director Alex Gibney. The film, narrated by Cuban American actor Raul Esparza, and fittingly titled, “Elián,” premiered Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens nationally on May 19th.

“I thought it was amazing that no one else hard returned to the story, or looked back at it in any real way,” said Tim Golden, a former NY Times correspondent who co-directed the documentary with Ross McDonnell “I was sure that there was more to the story—and indeed there was,” he told NBC Latino.

Using a significant amount of archival footage, some of it never before seen outside of Cuba, filmmakers meticulously reconstructed the 6-month saga of Elián as the little boy’s story became intertwined with the larger Cuban-American political milieu in South Florida.

Back in Cuba, Elián’s father wanting his son returned so he turned government officials for help. The case skyrocketed up the communist chain reaching Fidel Castro himself, who cleverly used the opportunity to galvanize his people against what he considered was another example of Yankee interventionism.

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NBC NEWS
SANDRA GUZMAN

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