Increasingly Visible, Cuba’s Elián González Champions Island’s Government

Elián González in 2010.Credit Prensa Latina/Ismael Francisco, via Associated Press

Elián González in 2010.Credit Prensa Latina/Ismael Francisco, via Associated Press

Ernesto Londoño  |  The New York Times  |  July 9, 2015

His rescue by fishermen off the coast of Fort Lauderdale nearly 16 years ago touched off a custody battle that ensnarled the Clinton White House in the intense acrimony between Cuban exiles and the island’s Communist leaders.

For years after Elián González returned to Cuba with his father in June 2000, he remained largely out of sight and gave only a handful of interviews. In recent months, though, as the island’s government starts to close an era of enmity with the United States, Mr. González has assumed an increasingly public profile, weighing in on substantive political issues.

Last month, in an interview with the Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, Mr. González argued that young Cubans must preserve the island’s socialist values and resist the allure of capitalism.

“It’s clear that if Cuba stopped being socialist, it wouldn’t be like the United States, it would be a colony, it would be Haiti, a poor country, poorer than it already is, and it would lose everything it’s achieved,” he said.

An engineering student who intends to serve in the military after he graduates, Mr. González is by far the best known Cuban of a generation at a crossroads. Few young Cubans today are as ardently political as their forefathers, who were indoctrinated to be fiercely loyal to the state. Many of Mr. González’s contemporaries are openly critical of the island’s anemic centrally-planned economy, the lack of affordable Internet access and government restrictions on private enterprise.

The Cuban government guarded Mr. González’s privacy zealously as he grew up, but the island’s leaders seem to have made an effort to shape his political convictions. Mr. González said in the interview that Fidel Castro, the former Cuban leader, sent him books from time to time.

“Every time he can he sends me one and for me it’s like a duty and I have to read them,” he said.

Mr. González, 21, has been invited to attend a summit of young Communist Party leaders later this month, which suggests the government could be grooming him for a formal prominent role. In the interview with Granma, he dismissed the notion that Cuba’s youth is adrift.

“Sometimes it’s said that the youth has not done anything for the revolution,” he said. “But young Cubans today are the same as those 15 years ago.”

And yet, in a fundamental way they are not. Young Cubans today are no longer expected to speak disparagingly about Cuban exiles, who were then labeled as “gusanos,” or worms, by the island’s leaders. They also can express interest in traveling to the United States as visitors.

In an interview ABC News aired in May, Mr. González expressed gratitude toward the Americans he met during the fraught period he spent in Miami. Asked where he most desires to travel one day as a visitor, he replied: “The United States.”

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