Elian Gonzalez was rescued from an inner tube in the Florida Straits in 1999 at age 6. His mother and nine others drowned after their rickety boat capsized while they tried to make their way from Cuba to the United States. After his rescue, Elian was placed with relatives in Miami, who wanted to keep him in the U.S. Here, the young boy decorates a Christmas tree with his cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez in December 1999.
Supporters of Elian staying in the United States hang a sign that says “Love, Justice and Liberty” beneath a painted mural of the 6-year-old next door to his relatives’ residence in Miami’s Little Havana. The case of the telegenic boy became a flashpoint between supporters and opponents of Castro’s revolution.
Elian’s father, Juan Miguel, fought to bring his son back to Cuba. Cuban leader Fidel Castro led massive protests on the island demanding Elian’s return. His Miami relatives argued if the boy went back to Cuba, he would become a brainwashed trophy for Castro in his long-running feud with the U.S.
When Elian’s Miami family refused to hand him over to his father in Cuba, armed federal agents stormed the home of his uncle in 2000 and seized the boy.
Elian was reunited with his father in April 2000, after the raid. Here, he poses with his father, half-brother and stepmother at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Following more court proceedings, ending with the Supreme Court rejecting the Miami relatives’ efforts to get him back, the family flew home to Cuba. His grandfather Juan Gonzalez hugs him upon his arrival at the Jose Marti Airport in Havana in June 2000, seven months after he was found in the water.
Elian celebrates his seventh birthday with classmates in Cardenas, Cuba. The guest of honor was Fidel Castro (unseen). Despite the promises he would return to his old life, Elian never stayed out of the public spotlight too long.
Elian, right, accompanied by a fellow military student, smiles in June 2008 in Havana as he attends an event marking the 80th anniversary of the birth of a Cuban national hero, Argentina’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Gonzalez had joined Cuba’s Young Communist Union. In May 2015, he was elected to the leadership of his local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood watch groups that act as the front-line eyes and ears of the Cuban government.
In June 2010, on the 10th anniversary of Elian’s return from Miami, Cuban President Raul Castro talks to him in a Havana church. After he graduates, Gonzalez told Cuban Communist Party daily Granma, he will join the Cuban military. “Living here is a debt I owe to the Cuban people,” Gonzalez said. “That’s who I will always work and fight for.”