The Virtualization of Elián González

1For seven months in 1999/2000, six-year old Cuban Elián González was embroiled in a family feud plotted along rival national and ideological lines, and relayed televisually as soap opera across the planet. In Miami, apparitions of the Virgin Mary were reported after Elián’s arrival; adherents of Afro-Cuban santería similarly regarded Elián as divinely touched. In Cuba, Elián’s “kidnapping” briefly reinvigorated a torpid revolutionary project. He was hailed by Fidel Castro as the symbolic descendant of José Martí and Che Guevara, and of the patriotic rigour they embodied. Cubans massed to demand his return. In the U.S.A., Elián’s case was arbitrated at every level of the juridical system. The “Save Elián” campaign generated widespread debate about godless versus godly family values, the contours of the American Dream, and consumerist excess. By the end of 2000 Elián had generated the second largest volume of TV news coverage to that date in U.S. history, surpassed only by the O. J. Simpson case (Fasulo). After Fidel Castro, and perhaps the geriatric music ensemble manufactured by Ry Cooder, the Buena Vista Social Club, Elián became the most famous Cuban of our era. Elián also emerged as the unlikeliest of popular-cultural icons, the focus and subject of cyber-sites, books, films, talk-back radio programs, art exhibits, murals, statues, documentaries, a South Park episode, poetry, songs, t-shirts, posters, newspaper editorials in dozens of languages, demonstrations, speeches, political cartoons, letters, legal writs, U.S. Congress records, opinion polls, prayers, and, on both sides of the Florida Strait, museums consecrated in his memory.

2Confronted by Elián’s extraordinary renown and historical impact, John Carlos Rowe suggests that the Elián story confirms the need for a post-national and transdisciplinary American Studies, one whose practitioners “will have to be attentive to the strange intersections of politics, law, mass media, popular folklore, literary rhetoric, history, and economics that allow such events to be understood.” (204). I share Rowe’s reading of Elián’s story and the clear challenges it presents to analysis of “America,” to which I would add “Cuba” as well. But Elián’s story is also significant for the ways it challenges critical understandings of fame and its construction. No longer, to paraphrase Leo Braudy (566), definable as an accidental hostage of the mass-mediated eye, Elián’s fame has no certain relation to the child at its discursive centre. Elián’s story is not about an individuated, conscious, performing, desiring, and ambivalently rewarded ego. Elián was never what P. David Marshall calls “part of the public sphere, essentially an actor or, … a player” in it (19). The living/breathing Elián is absent from what I call the virtualizing drives that famously reproduced him. As a result of this virtualization, while one Elián now attends school in Cuba, many other Eliáns continue to populate myriad popular-cultural texts and to proliferate away from the states that tried to contain him.

3According to Jerry Everard, “States are above all cultural artefacts” that emerge, virtually, “as information produced by and through practices of signification,” as bits, bites, networks, and flows (7). All of us, he claims, reside in “virtual states,” in “legal fictions” based on the elusive and contested capacity to generate national identities in an imaginary bounded space (152). Cuba, the origin of Elián, is a virtual case in point. To augment Nicole Stenger’s definition of cyberspace, Cuba, like “Cyberspace, is like Oz — it is, we get there, but it has no location” (53). As a no-place, Cuba emerges in signifying terms as an illusion with the potential to produce and host Cubanness, as well as rival ideals of nation that can be accessed intact, at will, and ready for ideological deployment. Crude dichotomies of antagonism — Cuba/U.S.A., home/exile, democracy/communism, freedom/tyranny, North/South, godlessness/blessedness, consumption/want — characterize the hegemonic struggle over the Cuban nowhere. Split and splintered, hypersensitive and labyrinthine, guarded and hysterical, and always active elsewhere, the Cuban cultural artefact — an “atmospheric depression in history” (Stenger 56) — very much conforms to the logics that guide the appeal, and danger, of cyberspace. Cuba occupies an inexhaustible “ontological time … that can be reintegrated at any time” (Stenger 55), but it is always haunted by the prospect of ontological stalling and proliferation.

4The cyber-like struggle over reintegration, of course, evokes the Elián González affair, which began on 25 November 1999, when five-year old Elián set foot on U.S. soil, and ended on 28 June 2000, when Elián, age six, returned to Cuba with his father. Elián left one Cuba and found himself in another Cuba, in the U.S.A., each national claimant asserting virtuously that its other was a no-place and therefore illegitimate. For many exiles, Elián’s arrival in Miami confirmed that Castro’s Cuba is on the point of collapse and hence on the virtual verge of reintegration into the democratic fold as determined by the true upholders of the nation, the exile community. It was also argued that Elián’s biological father could never be the boy’s true father because he was a mere emasculated puppet of Castro himself. The Cuban state, then, had forfeited its claims to generate and host Cubanness. Succoured by this logic, the “Save Elián” campaign began, with organizations like the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) bankrolling protests, leaflet and poster production, and official “Elián” websites, providing financial assistance to and arranging employment for some of Elián’s Miami relatives, lobbying the U.S. Congress and the Florida legislature, and contributing funds to the legal challenges on behalf of Elián at state and federal levels. (Founded in 1981, the CANF is the largest and most powerful Cuban exile organization, and one that regards itself as the virtual government-in-waiting. CANF emerged with the backing of the Reagan administration and the C.I.A. as a “private sector initiative” to support U.S. efforts against its long-time ideological adversary across the Florida Strait [Arboleya 224-5].)

5While the “Save Elián” campaign failed, the result of a Cuban American misreading of public opinion and overestimation of the community’s lobbying power with the Clinton administration, the struggle continues in cyberspace. CANF.net.org registers its central role in this intense period with silence; but many of the “Save Elián” websites constructed after November 1999 continue to function as sad memento moris of Elián’s shipwreck in U.S. virtual space. (The CANF website does provide links to articles and opinion pieces about Elián from the U.S. media, but its own editorializing on the Elián affair has disappeared. Two keys to this silence were the election of George W. Bush, and the events of 11 Sep. 2001, which have enabled a revision of the Elián saga as a mere temporary setback on the Cuban-exile historical horizon. Indeed, since 9/11, the CANF website has altered the terms of its campaign against Castro, posting photos of Castro with Arab leaders and implicating him in a world-wide web of terrorism. Elián’s return to Cuba may thus be viewed retrospectively as an act that galvanized Cuban-exile support for the Republican Party and their disdain for the Democratic rival, and this support became pivotal in the Republican electoral victory in Florida and in the U.S.A. as a whole.) For many months after Elián’s return to Cuba, the official Liberty for Elián site, established in April 2000, was urging visitors to make a donation, volunteer for the Save Elián taskforce, send email petitions, and “invite a friend to help Elián.” (Since I last accessed “Liberty for Elián” in March 2004 it has become a gambling site.) Another site, Elian’s Home Page, still implores visitors to pray for Elián. Some of the links no longer function, and imperatives to “Click here” lead to that dead zone called “URL not found on this server.” A similar stalling of the exile aspirations invested in Elián is evident on most remaining Elián websites, official and unofficial, the latter including The Sad Saga of Elian Gonzalez, which exhorts “Cuban Exiles! Now You Can Save Elián!” In these sites, a U.S. resident Elián lives on as an archival curiosity, a sign of pathos, and a reminder of what was, for a time, a Cuban-exile PR disaster.

6If such cybersites confirm the shipwrecked coordinates of Elián’s fame, the “Save Elián” campaign also provided a focus for unrestrained criticism of the Cuban exile community’s imbrication in U.S. foreign policy initiatives and its embrace of American Dream logics. Within weeks of Elián’s arrival in Florida, cyberspace was hosting myriad Eliáns on sites unbeholden to Cuban-U.S. antagonisms, thus consolidating Elián’s function as a disputed icon of virtualized celebrity and focus for parody. A sense of this carnivalesque proliferation can be gained from the many doctored versions of the now iconic photograph of Elián’s seizure by the INS. Still posted, the jpegs and flashes — Elián and Michael Jackson, Elián and Homer Simpson, Elián and Darth Vader, among others (these and other doctored versions are archived on Hypercenter.com) — confirm the extraordinary domestication of Elián in local pop-cultural terms that also resonate as parodies of U.S. consumerist and voyeuristic excess. Indeed, the parodic responses to Elián’s fame set the virtual tone in cyberspace where ostensibly serious sites can themselves be approached as send ups. One example is Lois Rodden’s Astrodatabank, which, since early 2000, has asked visitors to assist in interpreting Elián’s astrological chart in order to confirm whether or not he will remain in the U.S.A. To this end the site provides Elián’s astro-biography and birth chart — a Sagittarius with a Virgo moon, Elián’s planetary alignments form a bucket — and conveys such information as “To the people of Little Havana [Miami], Elian has achieved mystical status as a ‘miracle child.’” (An aside: Elián and I share the same birthday.)

7Elián’s virtual reputation for divinely sanctioned “blessedness” within a Cuban exile-meets-American Dream typology provided Tom Tomorrow with the target in his 31 January 2000, cartoon, This Modern World, on Salon.com. Here, six-year old Arkansas resident Allen Consalis loses his mother on the New York subway. His relatives decide to take care of him since “New York has much more to offer him than Arkansas! I mean get real!” A custody battle ensues in which Allan’s heavily Arkansas-accented father requires translation, and the case inspires heated debate: “can we really condemn him to a life in Arkansas?” The cartoon ends with the relatives tempting Allan with the delights offered by the Disney Store, a sign of Elián’s contested insertion into an American Dreamscape that not only promises an endless supply of consumer goods but provides a purportedly safe venue for the alternative Cuban nation.

8The illusory virtuality of that nation also animates a futuristic scenario, written in Spanish by Camilo Hernández, and circulated via email in May 2000. In this text, Elián sparks a corporate battle between Firestone and Goodyear to claim credit for his inner-tubed survival. Cuban Americans regard Elián as the Messiah come to lead them to the promised land. His ability to walk on water is scientifically tested: he sinks and has to be rescued again. In the ensuing custody battle, Cuban state-run demonstrations allow mothers of lesbians and of children who fail maths to have their say on Elián. Andrew Lloyd Weber wins awards for “Elián the Musical,” and for the film version, Madonna plays the role of the dolphin that saved Elián. Laws are enacted to punish people who mispronounce “Elián” but these do not help Elián’s family. All legal avenues exhausted, the entire exile community moves to Canada, and then to North Dakota where a full-scale replica of Cuba has been built. Visa problems spark another migration; the exiles are welcomed by Israel, thus inspiring a new Intifada that impels their return to the U.S.A. Things settle down by 2014, when Elián, his wife and daughter celebrate his 21st birthday as guests of the Kennedys. The text ends in 2062, when the great-great-grandson of Ry Cooder encounters an elderly Elián in Wyoming, thus providing Elián with his second fifteen minutes of fame. Hernández’s text confirms the impatience with which the Cuban-exile community was regarded by other U.S. Latino sectors, and exemplifies the loss of control over Elián experienced by both sides in the righteous Cuban “moral crusade” to save or repatriate Elián (Fernández xv). (Many Chicanos, for example, were angered at Cuban-exile arguments that Elián should remain in the U.S.A. when, in 1999 alone, 8,000 Mexican children were repatriated to Mexico (Ramos 126), statistical confirmation of the favored status that Cubans enjoy, and Mexicans do not, vis-à-vis U.S. immigration policy. Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon and Camilo Hernández’s email text are part of what I call the “What-if?” sub-genre of Elián representations. Another example is “If Elián Gonzalez was Jewish,” archived on Lori’s Mishmash Humor page, in which Eliat Ginsburg is rescued after floating on a giant matzoh in the Florida Strait, and his Florida relatives fight to prevent his return to Israel, where “he had no freedom, no rights, no tennis lessons”.)

9Nonetheless, that “moral crusade” has continued in the Cuban state. During the custody battle, Elián was virtualized into a hero of national sovereignty, an embodied fix for a revolutionary project in strain due to the U.S. embargo, the collapse of Soviet socialism, and the symbolic threat posed by the virtual Cuban nation-in-waiting in Florida. Indeed, for the Castro regime, the exile wing of the national family is virtual precisely because it conveniently overlooks two facts: the continued survival of the Cuban state itself; and the exile community’s forty-plus-year slide into permanent U.S. residency as one migrant sector among many. Such rhetoric has not faded since Elián’s return. On December 5, 2003, Castro visited Cárdenas for Elián’s tenth birthday celebration and a quick tour of the Museo a la batalla de ideas (Museum for the Battle of Ideas), the museum dedicated to Elián’s “victory” over U.S. imperialism and opened by Castro on July 14, 2001. At Elián’s school Castro gave a speech in which he recalled the struggle to save “that little boy, whose absence caused everyone, and the whole people of Cuba, so much sorrow and such determination to struggle.” The conflation of Cuban state rhetoric and an Elián mnemonic in Cárdenas is repeated in Havana’s “Plaza de Elián,” or more formally Tribuna Anti-imperialista José Martí, where a statue of José Martí, the nineteenth-century Cuban nationalist, holds Elián in his arms while pointing to Florida. Meanwhile, in Little Havana, Miami, a sun-faded set of photographs and hand-painted signs, which insist God will save Elián yet, hang along the front fence of the house — now also a museum and site of pilgrimage — where Elián once lived in a state of siege.

10While Elián’s centrality in a struggle between virtuality and virtue continues on both sides of the Florida Strait, the Cuban nowhere could not contain Elián. During his U.S. sojourn many commentators noted that his travails were relayed in serial fashion to an international audience that also claimed intimate knowledge of the boy. Coming after the O.J. Simpson saga and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the Elián story confirmed journalist Rick Kushman’s identification of a ceaseless, restless U.S. media attention shift from one story to the next, generating an “übercoverage” that engulfs the country “in mini-hysteria” (Calvert 107). But In Elián’s case, the voyeuristic media-machine attained unprecedented intensity because it met and worked with the virtualities of the Cuban nowhere, part of it in the U.S.A. Thus, a transnational surfeit of Elián-narrative options was guaranteed for participants, audiences and commentators alike, wherever they resided. In Cuba, Elián was hailed as the child-hero of the Revolution. In Miami he was a savior sent by God, the proof supplied by the dolphins that saved him from sharks, and the Virgins who appeared in Little Havana after his arrival (De La Torre 3-5). Along the U.S.A.-Mexico border in 2000, Elián’s name was given to hundreds of Mexican babies whose parents thought the gesture would guarantee their sons a U.S. future. Day by day, Elián’s story was propelled across the globe by melodramatic plot devices familiar to viewers of soap opera: doubtful paternities; familial crimes; identity secrets and their revelation; conflicts of good over evil; the reuniting of long-lost relatives; and the operations of chance and its attendant “hand of Destiny, arcane and vaguely supernatural, transcending probability of doubt” (Welsh 22).

11Those devices were also favored by the amateur author, whose narratives confirm that the delirious parameters of cyberspace are easily matched in the worldly text. In Michael John’s self-published “history,” Betrayal of Elian Gonzalez, Elián is cast as the victim of a conspiracy traceable back to the hydra-headed monster of Castro-Clinton and the world media: “Elian’s case was MANIPULATED to achieve THEIR OVER-ALL AGENDA. Only time will bear that out” (143). His book is now out of print, and the last time I looked (August 2004) one copy was being offered on Amazon.com for US$186.30 (original price, $9.95). Guyana-born, Canadian-resident Frank Senauth’s eccentric novel, A Cry for Help: The Fantastic Adventures of Elian Gonzalez, joins his other ventures into vanity publishing: To Save the Titanic from Disaster I and II; To Save Flight 608 From Disaster; A Wish to Die – A Will to Live; A Time to Live, A Time to Die; and A Day of Terror: The Sagas of 11th September, 2001. In A Cry for Help, Rachel, a white witch and student of writing, travels back in time in order to save Elián’s mother and her fellow travelers from drowning in the Florida Strait. As Senauth says, “I was only able to write this dramatic story because of my gift for seeing things as they really are and sharing my mystic imagination with you the public” (25).

12As such texts confirm, Elián González is an aberrant addition to the traditional U.S.-sponsored celebrity roll-call. He had no ontological capacity to take advantage of, intervene in, comment on, or be known outside, the parallel narrative universe into which he was cast and remade. He was cast adrift as a mere proper name that impelled numerous authors to supply the boy with the biography he purportedly lacked. Resident of an “atmospheric depression in history” (Stenger 56), Elián was battled over by virtualized national rivals, mass-mediated, and laid bare for endless signification. Even before his return to Cuba, one commentator noted that Elián had been consumed, denied corporeality, and condemned to “live out his life in hyper-space” (Buzachero). That space includes the infamous episode of South Park from May 2000, in which Kenny, simulating Elián, is killed off as per the show’s episodic protocols. Symptomatic of Elián’s narrative dispersal, the Kenny-Elián simulation keeps on living and dying whenever the episode is re-broadcast on TV sets across the world. Appropriated and relocated to strange and estranging narrative terrain, one Elián now lives out his multiple existences in the Cuban-U.S. “atmosphere in history,” and the Elián icon continues to proliferate virtually anywhere.