Divisive Battle Over Elián González Reverberates on a Miami Stage – The New York Times

A new play, “Elián,” explores the pain and rage that descended on the city during the monthslong dispute over the young boy in 2000.

Three actors are onstage in a scene from the play “Elián.” From left, a man gesturing in a suit, a man sitting on a table while holding a puppet of Fidel Castro, and a man placing a violin to his neck.
From left, Mike Iveson, Andhy Mendez and Jonathan Nichols-Navarro in “Elián,” by the playwright Rogelio Martinez, at Miami New Drama.Credit… Andres Manner

MIAMI BEACH — Elián González, the little Cuban boy at the center of a new play bearing his name, never appears onstage. Instead, audiences hear the sound of a child’s high-pitched giggle, a haunting echo of the events that, more than two decades ago, ripped Miami apart and riveted the nation.

The lone survivor after a storm capsized the small boat carrying his mother and 11 others fleeing Cuba, Elián was the center of a monthslong custody battle — his father and the dictator Fidel Castro on one side, Miami relatives and Cuban exiles on the other — that became a proxy for a larger political struggle. After U.S. immigration agents launched a pre-dawn raid in Little Havana to reunite the boy with his father, who ultimately brought him back to Cuba, outraged opponents protested in the streets.

For years, the story’s enduring image has been the dramatic photograph of a terrified 6-year-old boy, cornered by an armed federal agent. Miami New Drama now hopes to broaden that portrait with “Elián,” by the Cuban American playwright Rogelio Martinez, which examines the pain, rage, confusion and division that still resonates in a city filled with immigrants.

“Elian was a pivotal event,” said Michel Hausmann, who directed the play and is Miami New Drama’s artistic director. “Let people get upset, let them argue. I think it’s part of our duty as artists.”

Martinez’s play, which runs through Nov. 20 at the Colony Theater here, mixes knowing satire with emotional drama and is layered with cultural, political and historical detail that is instantly, often comically, recognizable to area residents.

It is all part of Hausmann’s mission to speak to this majority Latino city. A Jewish Venezuelan who left his native country in 2009 amid rising antisemitism and attacks on his Caracas theater troupe from the socialist government, he has commissioned multiple popular plays centered on the Cuban American and Venezuelan communities.

For “Elián,” Martinez immersed himself in the news coverage from 2000. He and Hausmann interviewed many of the central players, including Manny Diaz, who was a lawyer for Elián’s relatives in Florida before becoming a two-term mayor of Miami.

“It was very hard to relive,” Diaz, who now leads the Florida Democratic Party, said after a recent performance, pulling up a photo of his daughter Elisa playing with Elián on his phone.

Standing with her father, Elisa, now 27, shook her head. “After the raid, I asked my mom if they would take me away too,” she said. “It was surreal to see it as a play.”

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Armed federal agents raided the Miami house where Elián González, second from right, was staying with relatives.Credit…Alan Diaz/Associated Press

The story that transfixed the Cuban American community, many of whom had undertaken an odyssey similar to Elián’s, began on Thanksgiving morning in 1999, when two men fishing off the South Florida coast found him floating in an inner tube. He was brought to a hospital, and eventually taken in by his great-uncle and cousin.

When Elián’s father asked for his son back, Castro turned the boy into a political cause, with state rallies and speeches accusing the United States of kidnapping. News crews and fervent Cuban protesters camped outside the family’s Little Havana home, visited by a stream of politicians and celebrities as a court battle ensued. The standoff culminated with the surprise raid the day before Easter.

Enraged by the U.S. government’s actions, thousands of Cuban Americans switched from Democrat to Republican in what they called “el voto castigo” (the punishment vote). It was a crucial shift in an election year, with George W. Bush becoming president after defeating Vice President Al Gore in Florida by 537 votes.

The play is deeply sympathetic to Cuban American emotions and distrust of what Martinez portrays as political machinations by both Castro and the Clinton administration, while also capturing contradictions within the community itself.

Polls showed that Americans, as well as non-Cubans in Miami, overwhelmingly believed that Elián belonged with his father. The city was furiously divided, said Jay Weaver, a Miami Herald reporter who covered the story. “There was a lot of dissension — it got ugly,” he said. “Communication on both sides was abysmal.”

That mutual incomprehension is captured in “Elián” by the character Ninoska Perez, a Cuban exile and influential right-wing radio host, in two of the biggest laugh lines: “I’m OK with all that hate because at the end of the day I know we’re better than them,” she says, as well as, “The louder we get, the angrier we get, the more Americans will understand us.”

“Americans laugh at that because that’s how Cubans are,” said Joe Garcia, a former congressman and veteran Cuban American political consultant interviewed for the play. “Cubans laugh because they think it’s true.”

There are six Cuban Americans among the nine actors who play the real-life characters in “Elián,” commenting frequently to the audience. Carmen Pelaez plays Perez as well as Attorney General Janet Reno, who oversaw Elián’s return to his father. Mike Iveson (of Broadway’s “What the Constitution Means to Me”) is both the political operative Roger Stone — a cynically manipulative, mocking narrator — and President Bill Clinton. Andhy Mendez, who plays Diaz, also operates the comically menacing Castro puppet.

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“Elián” mixes knowing satire with emotional drama.Credit…Andres Manner

Martinez, the playwright, has long been interested in politics, with a Cold War trilogy among his plays that have been produced by leading theaters around the country. But with “Elián,” politics became personal.

Martinez’s mother brought him to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when he was 9, but avoided telling him that the Cuban authorities were not allowing his father to leave.

“My mom said, ‘We’ll see him next week,’” Martinez said. “Like we’re just going ahead. But as we were getting into the car, my mom said, ‘Go, go back. Go hug your dad.’”

Martinez did not see his father again until he was an adult, and only briefly. By the time Hausmann asked him to write the play in 2020, Martinez was himself a father of two young girls. “I had become my father and my mother,” he said. “I was experiencing the Mariel moment and the Elián moment at the same time.”

For many Cuban Americans, the play reflects their internal conflict during the Elián saga. Diaz, the lawyer and former mayor, was 6 when his mother brought him to Miami in 1961, forced to leave behind his father, a political prisoner. He was deeply wounded by the raid, which the play portrays as a betrayal of an agreement Elián’s relatives in Miami had signed with Reno 12 hours before. His character struggles to reconcile his faith in the system with his feelings as an exile.

“If you forget these things, they can happen again,” the real-life Diaz said. “It was an incredible learning experience,” he added, “to find myself fighting my old country and my new country at the same time.”

The issues depicted in “Elián” continue to play out in Miami and more widely. Latin American migrants continue to risk their own and their children’s lives trying to reach the United States. Miami New Drama’s social media posts have been inundated by furious accusations of communism and heated political arguments in Spanish. And months after Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida was accused of politicizing immigration when he flew Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in September, growing Hispanic support helped him win Miami-Dade County by historic margins in his re-election on Tuesday.

But reviews of “Elián” have been mostly positive, and the play was featured on the morning news shows of Univision and Telemundo, the leading Spanish-language networks.

“You are doing great work in presenting this,” a host for Mega TV, Padre Alberto, told Hausmann and Pelaez, his guests from the play. “Elián was very difficult for all of us, and it continues to be very hard to think about, and to make us very emotional.”

Glenda and Dariel Candelario experienced such emotion at a recent performance. The couple, who emigrated from Cuba in 2014, were among the thousands of children forced to attend rallies in Havana demanding Elián’s return. “They didn’t give us any choice,” Glenda Candelario said.

“We had been indoctrinated — we only had the Cuban government part of the story,” said her husband, who was 15 at the time. “I’m so excited to see this now, to hear the other side.”