Elián González documentary to air Thursday on CNN

Elián, a documentary about the painful custody battle over whether a Cuban boy should be returned to his father on the island after his mother drowned at sea or remain with his Miami relatives, makes its TV debut on CNN Thursday.

The events in the film played out over Thanksgiving Day in 1999 when Elián González was found floating in an inner tube by two South Florida men and ended seven months later when, legal appeals exhausted, his father accompanied him on a flight back to Cuba.

Elián, which was co-produced by CNN Films, will air on CNN at 10 p.m. Thursday and will be repeated Friday at 2 a.m. EST.

The documentary debuted April 21 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and had a brief theatrical run in Miami in the spring. The debut of the film coincided almost 17 years to the day when federal agents burst into the Little Havana home of González’s Miami relatives and seized him so he could be reunited with his father.

Juan Miguel González said his ex-wife, Elizabeth Brotons Rodríguez, had taken the little boy without his permission. She and 10 others drowned when the small aluminum boat they used to flee Cuba began taking on water.

The story is a quintessential Miami tale. It became personal for many Cuban exiles who saw in the boy’s story their own desperate flights for freedom and thought his dead mother’s wish that he live in the United States should be respected.

But others thought Elián’s place was with his father or that he was merely a pawn in the ongoing animosities between Havana and Washington. The debate deeply polarized the community.

Filmmakers sifted through hundreds of hours of archival news footage both from the United States and Cuba — where the late Fidel Castro also made the custody battle a cause célèbre — as well as home videos to make the film. They also interviewed key players in the story, including Elián himself, who is now a 23-year-old industrial engineering graduate and a member of the Young Communists Union.