History Book: The story of Elian Gonzalez


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, November 25th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD Radio History Book.

Twenty years ago, a boy is found floating in an inner tube near Florida. Plus, in 1984, musicians record a song to raise money for famine victims.

EICHER: But first, the story behind a 95-year old Thanksgiving tradition. Here’s Paul Butler.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: We begin today on November 24th, 1924, in New York City. The employees of Macy’s department store dress up and parade 6 miles from Herald Square to Harlem. 

Macy’s “Big Christmas Parade” features elephants, bears, and monkeys from the Central Park Zoo. The parade ends with Santa Claus and his reindeer sleigh pulling up to Macy’s front door. He mounts a golden throne and declares the Christmas shopping season open.

The parade is so successful, for both the store and the city, it becomes an annual event with millions of attendees every year. 

AUDIO: A million people line New York streets to see the Thanksgiving parade…

In 1927, lighter than air balloons replace the live animals—becoming the most well known feature of the parade. Felix the cat was the first character balloon. Fan favorites over the years have included the Happy Dragon, Mickey Mouse, and Smokey Bear. But the character balloon making the most appearances since 1924 is: Charles Schultze’s Snoopy… 

AUDIO: Snoopy, you’re a jewel. We love you…

Snoopy returns for the 40th time during this year’s parade. The balloon is 49 feet tall and takes 90 people to control. Snoopy is dressed as an astronaut—celebrating the 50th anniversary of landing on the moon. 

Next, 35 years ago:

AUDIO: [Sound of artist arriving at studio]

After watching a documentary on the Ethiopian famine, Irish rock-singer Bob Geldof decides he has to do something. 

AUDIO: It’s a complete obscenity that at the moment the grain silos of Europe and Midwest America are bursting with food…

Within a month, Geldof convinces more than 30 famous Irish and British artists to donate their time and talents to record a charity song co-written by Ultravox frontman Midge Ure. The proceeds are for famine relief. 

On November 25th, 1984, Sting, Boy George, George Michael, and the chorus of A-list pop-stars begin recording:

AUDIO: There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear… 

The British press describes the gathering as: “The Billion Dollar Band.” Film footage of the recording session reveals a circus like atmosphere. But many of the artists also seem melancholy over the tragic situation. U2’s Bono: 

BONO: There is people starving to death and people in Rock and Roll are overfed. And you worry about it. You worry about your place in it… 

Audio from a 1984 “making of” documentary. Columbia Records United Kingdom releases the recording about a week later. The single sells a million copies in the first week, making it one of the fastest selling singles in UK chart history. 

AUDIO: At Christmas time, we let in light, and we banish shade…

Thirty-five years later, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is ubiquitous. But the song has been heavily criticized for its caricature of Africa—a view that writer Bob Geldof shares, at least in part. 

In a 2010 interview with the Daily Telegraph, Geldof said: “I am responsible for two of the worst songs in history…” speaking of the Christmas standard and its sequel: “We Are the World.” But he added that the projects were never about music, rather about raising money. And that seems to be exactly what Band Aid did. Earning figures vary, but the Telegraph credits: “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” as raising $24 million for humanitarian relief. 

SONG: Feed the world, let them know that Christmas time is here…

And finally, Thanksgiving day 20 years ago. In the early morning hours of November 25th, 1999, two fishermen find a boy clinging to an inner tube off the Florida coast. The boy’s name is Elian Gonzalez.

Four days earlier, he and his mother joined 12 other refugees fleeing Cuba in an aluminum boat. Bad weather and rough seas filled the small vessel with water. The motor failed. Elians’ mother placed him in the inner tube fearing for his safety. Elian fell asleep but when he awoke, his mother was gone. 

U.S. officials grant temporary custody of the boy to his uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez. Meanwhile, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, Elian’s estranged father in Cuba, demands his return. 

RENO: This case has struck the heart and soul of the world…

The immigration, asylum, and custody battles rage for months. But eventually Attorney General Janet Reno announces the U.S. will return Elian to his father. 

RENO: I think we must take enforcement action based on the facts as they arise at the time…

Elian’s uncle refuses to cooperate. So in the early morning hours of April 22nd, 2000, armed U.S. federal agents forcibly remove the boy from his uncles’ arms.

AUDIO: [Agents remove Elian Gonzalez from uncle’s home]

Two months later, Elian and his father return home to a hero’s welcome. 

AUDIO: [Crowd welcoming Elian to Cuba]

Today, Gonzalez is 25 and works as a technology specialist in Cuba. He says he’d like to return to the U.S.—but only for a visit.

That’s this week’s WORLD Radio History Book. I’m Paul Butler.


(Photo/Alan Diaz, Reuters)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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