Elián González, a former Cuban refugee made famous after the Clinton administration violently expelled him from the United States in 2000 as a six-year-old, resurfaced on Cuban state television over the weekend to condemn “the rush of capitalist life” days before the announcement of new U.S.-Cuba talks.
González appeared on state television on Saturday, February 14, according to Cuban journalist Yusnaby Pérez. He made a short statement indicating his father was receiving an award from the communist government, discussing what he believed his life would have been like had he been allowed to stay in the United States, as American laws pertaining to balseros, the term for Cuban refugees who flee the island on makeshift rafts, would have permitted him to do. Despite the legal protections given for decades to Cuban refugees, González was denied an asylum hearing under the Clinton administration, so the laws were never applied.
“The most important thing to arise from this story,” González told the audience, “if I had stayed in the United States, the first thing I would have lost would have been my parents.” González’s mother died on the journey to the United States; he was found floating on the remnants of their raft. “The second thing would have been the support of this people… the love of the people who never left me,” he continued.
González concluded his statement with a jab at the United States: “with the rush of capitalist life, I would have forgotten the cause in two months… fifteen years after all that, I would not have had the awareness my parents gave me, and the love– which is I think is the most important thing.”
González has resurfaced occasionally in the public eye since returning to Cuba. In 2008, González was permitted to leave Cuba for the first time since his abduction from the home of his Miami relatives to attend Ecuador’s World Festival of Youth and Students. In 2013, he made public statements blaming the United States for the death of his mother.
González’s sudden reappearance– apparently exclusively to attack the American way of life– occurs days before the announcement of a second round of talks between the United States and Cuba scheduled to begin next week. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi arrived in Havana on Tuesday, with her office issuing a statement that her visit was “in friendship and to build upon the announcement of U.S. normalization of relations and other initiatives announced by President Obama.”
The first round of U.S.-Cuba talks concluded with little progress in the direction that President Obama may have hoped to see. The communist nation’s senior negotiator insisted to the public that “changes in Cuba aren’t negotiable” while condemning meetings between American officials and Cuban dissidents, who the Cuban government sees as threats to their dominion over the lives of Cuban citizens.
While Cuba’s negotiators simply refused any advances in the human rights or political realm, the island’s chief executive, Raúl Castro, delivered a speech in Costa Rica demanding that the United States give Cuba sovereignty over the Guantánamo Bay military base, and made clear that he intended to offer “nothing in return” for such a submission.
If González’s reappearance and harsh comments against the United States were intended to stall a flood of American culture on the streets of Havana, Conan O’Brien could not have given the Cuban government much comfort with his appearance in the capital this weekend. The comedian took to Cuba to film a segment of his program over the extended weekend, the first such visit by an American talk show host to the island since Jack Paar offered Fidel Castro free publicity in 1959. “I made countless friends and had one of the best experiences of my life,” O’Brien tweeted upon his return, with a photo in which O’Brien appears in a traditional pre-revolutionary white suit and an equally pre-revolutionary car.
Some expect O’Brien’s visit to be the first (second, if one counts Jay-Z and Beyonce’s questionably legal trip to Cuba last year) in what will become a flood of Hollywood celebrities swarming the island to enjoy Havana’s segregated hotels and world-famous sex industry. Whether the Cuban government will continue allowing such visits now that President Obama has significantly reduced barriers on the American side will largely depend on who the Cuban people will prefer to listen to: the faces of the communist regime, like Elián Gonzalez, American negotiators whose pleas for political flexibility have been entirely ignored, or “cultural ambassadors” from the States who the Cuban government will likely treat to the island’s best luxuries.