'537 Votes': Where is Elian Gonzalez? 6-year-old's US-Cuba custody battle led to Al Gore's defeat in elections

It was Elian's arrival in the United States that swung the intense presidential elections as the Clinton administration repatriated him back to Cuba, according to international law


                            '537 Votes': Where is Elian Gonzalez? 6-year-old's US-Cuba custody battle led to Al Gore's defeat in elections
Elian Gonzalez (Getty Images)
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In 2000, the Presidential elections to choose the 43rd President of the United States was possibly the closest in the history of the country. It was announced that George W Bush beat Al Gore for the position more than a month after ballotting amid controversies and the contested election recount in Florida. And the margin of votes in the electoral college that helped Bush win? Just 537 votes. The same is the title of the latest documentary on HBO from Miami filmmaker Billy Corbin. '537 Votes' tells the story of what changed the fates of the 2000 Presidential elections when it looked like Al Gore might win.

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Of course, there was one person who was undoubtedly at the center of the whole thing – six-year-old Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban boy who was found nestled in an inner tube floating at sea three miles from Florida's Fort Lauderdale coast. His mother and her boyfriend had drowned at sea with other Cuban refugees – Elian was the only survivor from their boat. Elian's arrival in Florida was seen as a miracle by the anti-Communist Cuban-Americans, who campaigned to keep the boy in the United States with his paternal family.

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However, Elian's father, Juan Miguel was back in the United States, and he petitioned to have his son back in Cuba, with Cuba's then-President, Fidel Castro supporting his call. International law was, of course, on Juan Miguel's side and what followed was an intense custody battle between the two countries as Cuban-Americans in the United States demanded that Elian's mother's dying wish be respected. Amidst the dispute, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the return of Elian to his father, however, Elian's Miami relatives defined the order.

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In April 2020, the Clinton administration sent federal agents to take Gonzalez at gunpoint from the home of his Miami relatives and sending him back to Cuba. A photo from the raid showing a federal agent pointing his gun at a crying and terrified-looking Elian during the raid later won the Pulitzer Prize. It was this event that prompted the Cuban-American population to cast a sort of "revenge vote" against Clinton's VP. This, and the contested election recount, led to Bush winning the elections.

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Following Elian's repatriation to Cuba, Elian lived with his father, stepmother, and three brothers in Cárdena, where his father worked as a waiter. In the years that followed, media reports were regularly brought out on Elian as videos showed him doing his homework and attending karate lessons. Elian also met Fidel Castro, and in an interview with 60 Minutes in 2005, he said that he viewed Castro as a friend. 

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Elian joined the Young Communist Union of Cuba in June 2008 shortly after graduating from junior high school. At age 15, he began military school. In a speech in 2013, Elian described his time in the United States as "very sad times for me, which marked me for my whole life", asserting that the Cuban Adjustment Act led to the denial of his rights, including "the right to be together with my father, the right to keep my nationality and to remain in my cultural context." In an interview in 2017, he told CNN that he agreed with what his father had done and was a strong supporter of the Cuban government. But he also said he hoped to one day reconcile with his Miami relatives.

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After graduating in 2016 as an industrial engineer, Elian began working as a technology specialist at a state-run company that makes large plastic water tanks. He got engaged to his high school sweetheart, with whom he announced he was expecting a child earlier this year.

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'537 Votes' premieres on HBO on October 21 at 9/8c. The documentary will be available for viewing on HBO Max on October 22.