His mother died while trying to escape the harsh economic situation on the island by boarding a homemade raft with 10 other people and Elian.
It sank, killing her and the other adults, but Elian was found floating on an inner-tube by himself some 60 miles north of Miami.
The U.S. Coast Guard brought him ashore to Florida, where his Miami relatives fought to keep him in the United States, but after months of protests in Cuba, President Bill Clinton ordered him returned, saying the boy belonged with his father, leading to the dawn raid on the Miami house.
Where is the 21-year-old now?
An avid supporter of Fidel Castro and member of Cuba’s Militant Union of Young Communists, he is studying Industrial Engineering at the University of Matanzas near his home in Cardenas, about 90 minutes outside Havana.
The Cuban media reports that Elian practices karate, swims, goes to the movies and hangs out with friends. He even has a Facebook page.
In a recent interview with ABC News, the Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez said Elian is “a terrific student right now, having a very happy and normal life ... like any university student in Cuba.”
Elian’s case is viewed in Cuba as historic and symbolic of Fidel Castro’s refusal to buckle to America’s power or, more specifically, to the Cuban-American exile community in Miami.
Elian’s father, Juan Miguel, who so eloquently fought to have his son returned to him in Cuba is now a member of the National Congress, and Elian himself has spoken out against the U.S. embargo.
Telling reporters at a Youth Congress in Ecuador in 2013 it was the economic blockade imposed by the American government that caused his mother to risk her life and his so desperately in 1999.
“Cuba, even with all its problems has progressed over the years,” Gonzalez said.
Elian remains close to Fidel Castro, who for years attended Elian’s birthday parties in the boy’s hometown.
In Cuba, he is regarded as a hero, and while he makes only rare public appearances, Elian has been spotted at political events and has spoken glowingly of his life on the island. Most recently he was spotted at President Raul Castro’s closing speech to the Council of States in December, only three days after the historic announcement to restore diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba.
Elian has yet to make made any public comment about the new, friendlier relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.