Elian

<b>Correspondent Bob Simon</b> Interviews Elian Gonzalez

This story originally aired on Oct. 2, 2005.

In the annals of conflict between Cubans and Americans, there was the Bay of Pigs, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis and, in 1999, there was Elian Gonzalez.

The last time we saw Elian, he was a 6-year-old in the eye of a storm in Miami, and possibly the youngest person ever to become the focus of an international crisis.

He survived an incredible sea journey after the boat he was on capsized during a storm. He was in the eye of the storm in Miami when his relatives tried to keep him there, while his father wanted him back home in Cuba. During the entire ordeal, every one had something to say about Elian Gonzalez except Elian himself. He was the silent one until he spoke to 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon last September.



When we met Elian, then 11 years old, what he seemed to like most about being interviewed was a bottle of really cold water and a gizmo in his ear for simultaneous translation.

The soft-spoken kid with the soft brown eyes and carefully gelled hair is in the seventh grade now. He likes math, and says he wants to be a computer scientist. Like the other kids, he rides his bike to school. Unlike them, he is always followed by security.

And there's another difference. Elian knows Fidel Castro. And Castro knows propaganda. He came to Elian's graduation from elementary school last July, and said he was proud to have Elian as his friend.

Elian knows that's something extraordinary for a kid. He says he thinks of Castro "not only as a friend, but also as a father."

If he had a problem, would Elian call Castro up and tell him about it? "I could," Elian says.

Elian is back in Cardenas, the coastal town where he was born and which hasn't changed much since the revolution. He lives in a modest new house with his father, his stepmother and his two young half-brothers.

He likes being with other people, he told us. It's important to him. "I don't like being alone. I always like being around others so I can be calm and not remember what happened," he says.

The bad memories begin with the night his mother and her boyfriend took him down a path and past mangrove trees to a desolate little beach just outside Cardenas. There, a few hours before dawn on Nov. 22, 1999, they were to board a boat and set off for America.

They were among 14 people packed into a 17-foot homemade boat. The only child on board, Elian thought he was going on an adventure.

"They told me we were going fishing and we were going to see my uncles," Elian says, "and since I was little I didn't understand very well what that was — to see my uncles."

His uncles lived in Miami, about a 30-hour trip in good weather. But after the sun set on their first day at sea, the boat drifted into a storm. Elian says he remembers the moment that the boat turned over. The child was put on top of an inner tube. A few others were clinging to the tube, including his mother, who couldn't swim.

"I remember it was daytime, and I saw my mother and a friend," he says. "Then I saw them fighting. No, no I couldn't do anything. Then I fell asleep and when I opened my eyes, I didn't see anyone."

  • Carol Kopp

60 Minutes App

New Look. New Season. The 60 Minutes app for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch!

More from 60 Minutes