The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 depicts Gilead’s PR machine going into overdrive, at Fred’s urging, in an effort to repatriate baby Nichole. We spoke to showrunner Bruce Miller ahead of this season about a real world parallel: the Elian Gonzalez story.
While not a direct inspiration, the real-world international custody battle that dominated American news media in 1999-2000 has clear parallels to this season of The Handmaid’s Tale. Miller says it was, “definitely part of the research that we did,” suggesting that the real-life event might provide insights as to where the fictional story is going next.
A brief refresher, since the case has been out of the news for a while: Elian Gonzalez was a five-year-old Cuban boy who, along with his mother, her boyfriend, and 11 other people, fled Cuba on rafts, trying to reach Florida in 1999.
Eleven people died on the way, including Elian’s mother, while two people made it to shore. On Thanksgiving day, Elian was saved by fishermen who found him clinging to an inner tube and brought him to the US. Once there, he became the central figure in a very public, high-stakes drama between the US and Cuba that had more to do with public perception and those two countries’ political drama than it did with his actual well-being, much like baby Nichole.
The argument for Elian to stay in the US was that his mother died trying to bring him to America, and in the four months since he arrived, he had been staying with family and started to bond with them, particularly a cousin of a similar age. For many in Miami, this was an opportunity to save a child from the Castro regime, to fulfill his mother’s dying wish, and to declare a victory for freedom. The Catholic church even got involved, with prayer services held on Elian’s behalf on both sides of the Straits of Florida.
On the Cuban side of things, Elian’s only living parent was 90 miles away on la Isla, as well as both sets of grandparents (his grandmothers travelled to Miami to lobby for his return). In the vast majority of child custody cases, children are kept with a parent, if there is one.
Beyond that, leaving Cuba via raft was illegal. While the US’s so-called Wet Feet/Dry Feet policy meant that any fleeing Cuban could stay in the US if they made it to dry land, the fishermen who found Elian were stopped by the US Coast Guard and had to hand him over. They were reluctant to do so because of this policy, but were assured he could stay in the country for medical reasons; Elian had been in the water for some time and had some scratches on him, but was otherwise healthy.
This meant the US would be violating the Wet Feet/Dry Feet Policy, something that was tough to broker between the two governments. It came hot on the heels of the rafting crisis that saw Cubans fleeing the country en mass in anything that would float and rose to a fever pitch in 1994-1995, so Castro was unlikely to back down. Would anyone in the US government be willing to spend the political capital to take a stand in opposition to their own agreement with Cuba?
So what does all of this have to do with Handmaid’s Tale? In both this real-world crisis and the world of the show, we have two nations: one a highly developed superpower, the other largely considered something of a rogue state, shrouded in mystery, yet still very much a player on the national stage. We have people other than the child’s parents seeking guardianship and asylum in the new country. We have a child who is not considered capable of making their own choice. We have a mother who, while she may have shown intent, has essentially been deemed voiceless, and a father back in the old regime.
“The parallels weren’t intentional,” Miller told us, “but once we decided that we were going to do a story about a child that was taken from one country to another, and what is it like when two countries are fighting over a child, that was one of the first places I went to for research.”
With the Elian Gonzalez case, the United Nations and the Catholic Church both got involved, and the battle over Elian’s future played out on a world stage. As part of their advisory role with the show this season, the UN helped Miller and his team understand how the international politics of baby Nichole would play out.
“Relationships between a pariah state and the rest of the world is something the UN deals with all the time,” said Miller, “everything from refugee issues to children issues to how to keep tabs on the people who are in a black box state and try to figure out whatever they’re thriving or being murdered or whatever.”
Miller was very much aware of grounding the murkiness and cultural relativism of the baby Nichole storyline in this real world example, highlighting that, “What was interesting there was that [the Elian Gonzalez incident] was a grey area. I think a lot of times with children and parentage, there’s different traditions. In our country we have surrogates, we adopt children, but some countries don’t recognize those things.”
One of the biggest cultural similarities is the way in which major demonstrations are used to sway international opinion. In Havana, there’s a plaza in front of the US Special Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy, which functioned as the US Embassy during the years when the two countries did not have formal diplomatic relationships. In that plaza, hundreds of Cubans would gather with shirts and signs made by the state, as well as homemade signs, for demonstrations that were televised and photographed for the entire world to see. Elian’s father sent open letters asking for his son’s return in Cuba’s national newspaper el Granma, which were also run in other newspapers.
Meanwhile, Miami’s Little Havana was hosting demonstrations of its own, which were echoed by protests in major cities nationwide. Elian’s Miami relatives and their surrogates plead their case across major US television networks. The United Nations and the Catholic Church both got involved, and the battle over Elian’s future played out on a world stage.
In the end, after a court battle, the US decided he belonged back in Cuba with his father and he was seized from his mother’s family in a pre-dawn raid. The court battle continued with appeals, but eventually Elian was returned to Cuba where he lives to this day, and is now an industrial engineer. Elian’s homes in each country have been turned into museums.
What might that mean for baby Nichole and The Handmaid’s Tale? Unlike Elian’s father, Juan Miguel, Nichole’s birth parents are still alive. So far Aunt Lydia, the Waterfords, and others have threatened June to play nice. We’ve already seen Nick try and fail to help. Canada might be more inclined to leave Nichole in the care of her adoptive family of Luke and Moira in addition to Emily’s testimony on June’s intention for Nichole – hopefully it all adds up to enough. As long as June is alive, there’s hope for baby Nichole.
Delia Harrington a freelance writer and photographer focusing on social justice and pop culture through a feminist lens. She loves post-apocalyptic sci-fi, historical fiction, and feminist comic books. You can follow Delia @deliamary.