Shipwreck on dry land
Special from Cuba

by Gabriel García Márquez


That Friday, when Juan Miguel González went to collect his son Elián from school to spend the weekend with him, he was told that Elizabeth Brotons, his ex-wife and the child’s mother, had taken Elián out at midday and had not returned him in the afternoon. Picking up his son was nothing unusual in Juan Miguel’s routine as a divorced parent. After Elizabeth and he had separated on the best of terms two years before, the child lived with his father, and alternated his days between his father’s and mother’s houses. But Elizabeth’s door was padlocked shut over the weekend and on the following Monday, too, and Juan Miguel began to make inquiries. And so he discovered the bad news that was becoming public knowledge in the city of Cárdenas: Elián’s mother had taken him to Miami with twelve others, in a five-and-a-half meter aluminum boat, with no lifejackets and a decrepit engine that had been repaired many times before.

It was November 22, 1999.

“My life ended on that day,” says Juan Miguel, four months later. After the divorce he had maintained cordial and stable, albeit rather unusual, relations with Elizabeth, as they continued living under the same roof and sharing their dreams in the same bed, with the hope of conceiving as lovers the child they had been unable to have as a married couple. It seemed impossible. Elizabeth became pregnant, but suffered from miscarriages in the first four months of pregnancy.

After seven miscarriages, and with special medical care, the long-awaited son was born, and for him they had planned just one name when they married: Elián.

This name has attracted attention outside of Cuba. It has been carelessly reported that Elián was a biblical patriarch, and one newspaper has celebrated it as an invention of Rubén Dario. But for Cubans, Elián is just another of the many names they invent, turning their backs on the books of saints’ names, like: Usnavi, Yusnier, Cheislisver, Anysleidis, Alquimia, Deylier, Anel. What Elizabeth and Juan Miguel did was create an equitable name for their newborn baby, from the first three letters of Elizabeth, and the last two of Juan.

Elizabeth was 28 years old when she took the child to Miami. She had been a good hotel management student, and continued to be an attentive and obliging first-class waitress at the Paradiso-Punto Arenas Hotel in Varadero.

Her father says that she fell in love with Juan Miguel González when she was fourteen and married him at eighteen. “We were like brother and sister,” says Juan Miguel, a quiet, personable man who worked in Varadero as a cashier in Josone Park. As divorcées with a child, Juan Miguel and Elizabeth both continued to live in Cárdenas — where all the protagonists of this drama were born and lived — until she fell in love with the man who cost her her life: Lázaro Rafael Munero, the local cock of the walk, a womanizer without a regular job, who learned judo not as a sport, but to fight, and had served a two-year prison sentence for armed robbery in Varadero’s Siboney Hotel. For his part, Juan Miguel subsequently married Nelsy Carmenate, with whom he now has a six-month-old son, who was the love of Elián’s life until Elizabeth took him off to Miami.

It didn’t take Juan Miguel long to realize where his son was, because everyone knows everything in the Caribbean. “Even before it happens,” as one of my sources told me. Everyone knew that the adventure’s promoter and organizer was Lázaro Munero, who had made at least two clandestine journeys to the United States to prepare the terrain. He had the necessary contacts and sufficient guts to take not only Elizabeth and her son, but also a younger brother, his own father (over 70 years old), and his mother, who was recovering from a heart attack. Another partner in the enterprise took his entire family: his wife, his parents and his brother, and a neighbor who lived opposite, whose husband was awaiting her in the United States. At the last minute, at a payment of a thousand dollars each, he took on a 22-year-old woman, Arianne Horta, her five-year-old daughter Esthefany, and Nivaldo Vladimir Fernández, the husband of a friend.

An infallible formula for a positive reception in the United States is arriving in its territorial waters as a castaway. Cárdenas is a good departure point, given its proximity to Florida and its coves protected by mangrove swamps that make things difficult for the coast guards patrolling its waters. And the regional art of boat-making, for fishing in the neighboring Ciénaga de Zapata and Laguna del Tesoro, make raw materials available for building illegal vessels. Particularly useful are the aluminum tubes for irrigating citrus plantations, which go for a dime a dozen when they’re no longer good for anything else. It’s said that Munero must have spent about $200 US and another 800 Cuban pesos on the engine and the boat. The final product was a narrow canoe no longer than a car, without a roof or seats, meaning the passengers had to travel seated on the bottom, under the full glare of the sun. It is thought that the boat was ready last September, waiting for the end of the hurricane season. The outboard motor

wasn’t exactly up to the job, after many years of breaking down in the Straits of Florida, but it was all they could find. Three car inner tubes were on board as life preservers for fourteen people. There was absolutely no space for anyone else. The three inner tubes were black, perhaps reassuring the passengers, since a Caribbean superstition says that this color frightens off sharks, who are naturally shortsighted. Before leaving, most of the passengers injected themselves with Gravinol to ward off seasickness.

Apparently they set sail on November 20 from a mangrove swamp near Jagüey Grande, very close to Cárdenas, but had to return due to engine failure. They remained hidden there for two days, waiting for repairs while Juan Miguel believed that his son was already in Miami. This first emergency made Arianne Horta realize that the risks of the adventure were too great for her daughter, so she decided to leave her on land with her family and take her by a safer route later. It has also been said that Elián became aware right there of the dangers of the crossing and sobbed out that he wanted to stay behind. Munero, fearful of being discovered due to the child’s wailing, threatened Elizabeth: “Either you shut him up, or I will.”

Finally, they sailed at dawn on March 22, with a good sea but a bad engine. With the weather co-operating, the crossing could be made in 48 to 72 hours in a low-speed boat. The survivors’ account to the Florida press after the shipwreck, corroborated in telephone conversations with their families in Cárdenas, placed the terrifying details of the tragedy in the public domain. Their versions are the only ones we have, as long as Elián’s remains unknown. The survivors said that at midnight on November 22 the trip’s organizers removed the useless engine and threw it into the sea to lighten the load. But the boat, unbalanced, tipped over on one side and all the passengers fell overboard. Another theory from the experts is that when the boat tipped it could have broken the fragile soldering of the aluminum tubes, and the boat sank.

It was the end, on a dark night in an inferno of panic. The adults who couldn’t swim must have drowned instantly. One factor working against most of the passengers must have been the Gravinol, which averts seasickness but also provokes drowsiness and slows down reflexes. Arianne and Nivaldo clung to one of the inner tubes; Elián, and perhaps his mother, clung onto another. Nothing was known about the third tube. Elián could swim, but Elizabeth couldn’t, and could easily have lost her grip in the midst of the confusion and terror. “I saw when Mamá was lost in the sea,” the child would later tell his father on the phone. What is difficult to understand, though it ought to be true, is that she had the serenity and the time to give her son a bottle of fresh water.

Despite hearing all kinds of erroneous information, Juan Miguel had a premonition of the tragedy before it happened. He had made various calls to his uncle Lázaro González, who lived in Miami for years, and inquired about clandestine arrivals or recent shipwrecks. But they had absolutely nothing to tell him.

Finally, at dawn on Thursday the 25th, successive news items broke. The body of a woman was found on the beach by a fisherman. Later Arianne and Nivaldo showed up alive, clinging to one of the inner tubes. Soon it was learned that a child had turned up along the coast at Fort Lauderdale, unconscious and burned by the sun; not clinging to, but lying face upwards in another inner tube. It was Elián, the last survivor.

Juan Miguel’s first impulse was to talk with his son on the phone, but he didn’t know where he was. On November 25, a doctor called him from Miami to find out what illnesses Elián had had, medicines that disagreed with him, operations he had undergone. Then Juan Miguel realized, with great joy, that it had been Elián himself who, in the hospital, gave his father’s name, telephone number and address in Cárdenas.

Juan Miguel gave the information requested by the doctor, who phoned him the following day so he could speak with Elián. Clearly upset, but in a strong voice, Elián told his father how he had seen his mother drown.

He also told him that he had lost his backpack and school uniform; Juan Miguel interpreted that as a symptom of disorientation and tried to help him. “No, honey,” he told him, “your uniform is here and I have your backpack for when you come back.” It’s also possible that Elián had another set in his mother’s house, or that they’d bought one for him at the last minute so that he wouldn’t insist on returning home. His attachment to his school, famous among his teachers and classmates, was demonstrated a few days later, when he told his teacher by telephone: “Look after my desk for me.”

From those initial calls, Juan Miguel realized that someone in Miami was hindering his phone conversations with Elián.

“You should know that, from the beginning, they did everything possible to sabotage us,” he told me. “Sometimes they talk to the boy in loud voices while we’re having a conversation, they turn up the volume of the cartoons on the television as high as possible, or put a candy in his mouth so that I can’t understand what he’s saying.” Raquel Rodríguez and Mariela Quintana, Elián’s grandmothers, also suffered these tricks during their stormy visit to Miami, when a police officer, under the orders of a frenetic nun, snatched the cell phone they used to share news of the child to his family in Cuba. The visit, which had been planned to last over two days, was finally reduced to ninety minutes, with all kinds of deliberate interruptions and only a quarter of an hour alone with Elián. The grandmothers returned to Cuba horrified at how much he had changed. “This is not the same child,” they said, affected by the timidity and restraint of the boy they recalled as a vivacious, intelligent child with a remarkable aptitude for drawing. “He has to be rescued!”

It would seem that nobody in Miami is concerned about the damage they have inflicted on Elián’s mental health with the methods of cultural dislocation to which he was subjected. At his sixth birthday party in the Miami stronghold, on December 6, his self-serving hosts took photos of him in a combat helmet, surrounded by toy weapons and draped in a U.S. flag, shortly before a child of his own age shot a schoolmate dead with a revolver in Michigan. These were not toys expressing love, of course, but the unequivocal signs of a political conspiracy which millions of Cubans openly attribute to the Cuban American National Foundation, created by Jorge Mas Canosa and sustained by his heirs, and which appears to be spending millions of dollars to ensure that Elián not be returned to his father. In other words: Elián’s real shipwreck was not on the open sea, but when he stepped on dry land in the United States.

The Cubans’ anger at this unusual expropriation has few precedents, even in the history of their own revolution. The mass mobilization and torrent of ideas that have burst forth in the country to demand the return of the usurped child is spontaneous and spectacular. There is one thing new: the mass participation of youth and children. Catholic poet Cintio Vitier, shocked by U.S. mismanagement of the case, wrote a poem for Elián: “What fools! They have united us forever.” From the other shore, a disaffected Cuban exile said the same thing in another way: “The Yankees are so stupid that they have thrust Cuban youth into Fidel’s arms.”

Nevertheless, the authors of the campaign to retain Elián have money and power, enough to fight the legal system of the United States, whose Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as well as the courts have recognized that Juan Miguel is the only person authorized to represent the child and act on his behalf. On January 25, Ambassador Mary A. Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, expressly and publicly asked that the child be returned to his father as quickly as possible, and warned that a decision to the contrary would be totally out of keeping with the principles her country would defend in the case of a U.S. child. President Clinton told the press that no political issues should be allowed to interfere in this case, and that the INS decision should be respected.

The issue that parental custody has impinged on tensions between the United States and the Cuban Revolution since it began would appear to be no small coincidence. In 1960, under the Eisenhower administration, the CIA invented and propagated in Cuba the false rumor that a law had been passed under which children would be snatched from their parents by the government and sent for indoctrination in the Soviet Union. Even crueler lies affirmed that the most appetizing children would be sent to Siberian slaughterhouses to be returned as canned meat, and that fifty mothers from Bayamo, in eastern Cuba, had preferred to kill their under-age children rather than subject them to that sinister law. This was what the United States itself christened as Operation Peter Pan.

Despite formal denials from Cuba, the Eisenhower administration reached a secret agreement with the U.S. Catholic Church, so that Cuban parents could send their children to the United States, unaccompanied, without passports or baggage. The heart-rending exodus, in which the United States invested $28 million, created a community of false orphans forcefully integrated into U.S. culture.

Would it be perverse to see the case of Elián as the ghost of Operation Peter Pan? I have been unable to avoid the connection after hearing the public plea of José Pertierra, a distinguished lawyer in the Miami immigration service, who arrived from Cuba at the age of twelve in that stream of parentless children, and who made a televised public appeal to recognize the parental custody of Elián’s father. “Not even the relatives in the United States are saying that this father is a bad father,” Dr. Pertierra stated. “What they are saying is that they don’t like Fidel Castro’s politics, but Fidel Castro is not the father of this son.”

Gabriel García Márquez is a Nobel prize-winning author and a personal friend of Fidel Castro. Translation by Granma International and El Andar © Granma International, La Habana

© 2000 El Andar Magazine