In November 1999, 5-year old Elian Gonzalez, his mother and 13 other Cubans had tried to flee across the Florida Straits, and their boat sank. Elian, who had been lashed to an innertube, was rescued by fishermen, and taken to his relatives in Little Havana, Miami. (Only two other adults survived). By April, the Clinton administration was demanding that Elian be turned over so he could return to Cuba with his father, but his Miami relatives refused.
For months, photographers and reporters camped out outside the front pouch of Gonzalez’s refuge in Little Havana. They were not allowed inside the fence nor speak to Elian. Freelancer Alan Diaz who was soon hired by AP to cover the Elian Gonzalez Affair was one of the first photographers to be on the scene.
In the pre-dawn darkness of April 22nd 2000, the United States Border Patrol was authorized to break into the house and take Elian away to be reunited with his father. Diaz heard heavy boots stampede the backyard. “It’s going down,” Diaz yelled as he grabbed his camera, which he’d placed beneath a towel to protect it from the early morning dew. He jumped the fence; a family member let him in and locked the door behind him. Pandemonium awaited him inside; Elian’s frantic relatives were scurried around the living room, and after a few minutes of searching, Diaz found 6-year-old Elian held in the closet by Donato Dalrymple, who helped pull the boy from the ocean five months earlier.
From inside that room, Diaz took the photograph of a federal agent with an assault rifle confronting a screaming Elian and a stunned Dalrymple. That photo would win Diaz a Pulitzer, and would later become the defining moment of the entire saga. In moves reflective of the nation’s divided opinions over Elian, some magazines showed a joyful photo of Elian being reunited with his father, while others ran Diaz’s photo. Time magazine showed both photos on its cover, but the caption which says “Papa!” revealed where the editorial staff’s real sympathies lay.
The aftermath of the raid was equally tumultuous. “Assassins!” yelled protestors who attempted to stop the federal agents. An American flag were ripped apart and burnt, and riots and demonstrations ensued. Juan Gonzalez, Elian’s father, became a national hero for resisting the Americans and was elected to Cuba’s National Assembly, in 2003. As for Elian Gonzalez, he would routinely appear up at government events next to Fidel Castro who also dedicated a museum for him.
The biggest loser of the entire saga seems to be Al Gore, the-then Vice President. His retraction of initial support of a legislation to give the boy and his father permanent residence status angered the Cuban community in Florida, and lost him the Cuban American vote Bill Clinton got in 1996. Gore would go on to lose Florida by 537 votes and consequently the November 2000 election.
See Slate’s analysis of the photo and events surrounding it here.