“Miraculous Elián” Returns?

January 9, 2009

Elián Gonzáles, the little boy rescued off the Florida coast in 1999, when his mother and other Cuban refugees perished, may play a role in the forthcoming confirmation hearings for Eric Holder, Barack Obama’s nominee for U.S. attorney general.

In December 2008, in what appeared to be a partisan political move, eight Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans—but no Democrats—sought documents that might relate to Holder’s role in the Elián matter, as well as other Clinton-era controversies. They sent letters requesting the documents to Attorney General Michael Mukasey and to Clinton’s presidential library.

Holder was deputy attorney general when Border Patrol agents raided the home of Elián’s Miami relatives. The exiled family members were in an international custody battle with the boy’s surviving parent, attempting to prevent Elián from being returned to him and thus to the Cuba of Fidel Castro’s regime.

Before Elián was returned home, many of those wishing him to be held in the United States styled him as a divine messenger. For example, while he was in the water after the refugees’ leaky boat sank, it was said, dolphins propped him up to prevent his drowning. It was also claimed that, miraculously, he had escaped being sunburned at sea. Associated with him were even reported sightings of the Virgin Mary, such as her image seen in a stain on a Little Havana bank window.

Alas, the “miracles” did not survive scrutiny. Elián was supported in the water, not by mythic dolphins but by an inner tube that had been on the boat as a life preserver. The lack of sunburn was untrue; he was treated at the Joe Dimaggio Children’s Hospital for “sunburn and dehydration.” As to the Virgin’s image, not everyone could discern it in the “cloudlike” stain, which was apparently due to mineral residue from sprinkler water; it was merely a simulacrum, an image seen due to people’s ability to perceive shapes in random patterns (like seeing pictures in clouds or inkblots).

Outside Elián’s relatives’ home, in Miami, CNN showed scenes of the boy being held up to the fence so he could touch the rosaries of the adoring faithful. Elián looked like he would rather be doing something else. (For more, see Joe Nickell, “Miraculous Elián,”   Skeptical Inquirer , Sept./Oct. 2000, pp. 7—8.)

Elián thrived in Cuba, where he became a political cause celebre, although not a religious one as well. The controversy is being resumed. One wonders if the miraculists will again make outrageous claims.