Alan Diaz, a photojournalist whose 2000 picture of an armed U.S. immigration agent confronting a terrified 6-year-old Cuban boy named Elián González captured a bitter international custody battle and earned him the Pulitzer Prize, died July 3 at 71.
Mr. Diaz’s daughter, Aillette Rodriguez-Diaz, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.
The American-born photographer spent much of his early career in Cuba, where he trained in photography before settling in Miami in 1978 to work as a freelance photographer and English teacher. He was freelancing for the Associated Press when the González saga began.
Elián González was 5 when he was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Thanksgiving Day 1999. His mother was one of a dozen Cubans who had drowned in their attempt to flee to the United States from Cuba. He was released into the custody of an uncle, Lazaro González, and he spent the ensuing months among relatives in Miami, who began the battle for his custody over the objections of the boy’s father and the Cuban government.
Through his connections, Mr. Diaz befriended members of the Miami branch of the González family and said he deepened his trust with them over coffee and cigarettes. He told the AP that he obeyed the uncle’s command not to speak to the boy. Subsequent photos of Elián captured the boy hanging Christmas decorations and celebrating his sixth birthday.
As the months passed, and international and familial tensions worsened, Mr. Diaz sensed it was only a matter of time before a raid would commence. The commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Doris Meissner, ruled that Elián’s father had custody rights — a decision backed by Attorney General Janet Reno amid other efforts by the Miami relatives to retain custody.
The 2000 case was taken up by Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for president that year, who publicly declared his support of Elián to stay in the country while the lawsuit wound through family court.
On April 22, 2000, Mr. Diaz said he received a radio call that the pre-dawn raid had begun to retrieve the boy from Lazaro González’s home. He rushed over from his own home nearby and was led into the González residence, where he saw Elián and recalled his frightened cries, “What’s happening? What’s happening?”
“Nothing’s happening, it’s going to be all right,” Mr. Diaz said he told the child moments before immigration agents rushed in and took him. Mr. Diaz called the AP office in Miami and said he “got the shot.”
Moments after it went on the wire, newspapers around the world put it on their front pages. It also was on near-ubiquitous display on TV. In the political arena, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and members of the anti-Castro community used the image to justify their outrage. The picture won the 2001 Pulitzer for breaking news photography.
“I have no opinion on it. I shot the moment. That’s all,” Mr. Diaz later told the AP. “Good or bad, that’s what happened that morning.”
The son of Cubans, Mr. Diaz was born in New York City in 1947. He spent his adolescence in Cuba, where he studied under Alberto Korda, who took one of the most reproduced images of Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Months after the raid, Mr. Diaz became a full-time staff photographer for the AP. He covered sporting events, politics (including disputed ballots in the 2000 presidential election) and breaking news until retiring in 2017.
His wife, Martha, died nearly two years ago.