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The event that set the course of the 21st century

By John Ditchburn - posted Monday, 11 May 2009

In every century there seems to be a single act by an individual or small group of people that defines the course of that century.

In the 20th century it was the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on the June 28, 1914, by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. Through a series of intricate military alliances this assassination started World War I, which in turn led to the Bolshevik uprising in Russia in 1917.

The harsh Treaty of Versailles at the end of the World War I was the tinderbox for the rise of Nazism and the World War II. It is true that at the start of the 20th century European superpowers were itching for war but had Gavrilo Princip failed to assassinate the archduke World War I would not have started when it did and we would be living in a very different world today.


So what do you think will be considered as the defining event that shapes the 21st century? Many will point to the flying of aeroplanes into the World Trade Centre by a small group of al-Qaida fanatics on September 11, 2001. However, I would argue that the defining event of the 21st century had already occurred by then, but most people did not even notice that it had happened. And what was that event? It was that Elian Gonzalez did not drown.

Elian who?! Let me fill in some details. On the night of November 21, 1999, Elian, 7, his mother and eight other people where travelling in a small open boat from Cuba to Florida in a desperate attempt to escape Fidel Castro’s communist regime when a storm blew up and swamped their boat. By the time the US Coast Guard found them seven people had drowned including Elian’s mother. But Elian himself survived. When the coast guard vessel carrying the survivors returned to Florida they handed Elian over to his maternal grandmother, who was living in Miami.

However, Elian’s father, who was still living in Cuba, asked the then Clinton Administration to return Elian to him. The request was granted. This decision incensed the large expatriate Cuban population living in Florida and a protracted battle in the courts ensued. It reached its climax in the early hours of April 22, 2000, when US federal agents forcibly removed Elian from his grandmother’s home and returned him to his father in Cuba.

TURNING POINT: Federal agents storm the Miami house where Elian Gonzalez was staying to return him by force to his father In Cuba.

Just seven months later George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in the US presidential election by winning the state of Florida, a state won by a only a handful of votes.


A number of US commentators believe it was the Cuban-American protest vote at the Clinton Government’s handling of Elian Gonzales case that swung Florida to the Republicans.

Had Al Gore won Florida the presidency would have been his. Now if Gore had won Americans would still have demanded a very tough stance on terrorism but few believe he would have gone to war in Iraq. And given his stance on global warming it is likely he would have taken decisive action on global warming much earlier. Arguably, the former Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and its blocking of effective action on global warming has irrevocably set the course of the 21st century.

This article has not been written to pass judgment on the actions of George W. Bush, Al Gore or the Clinton administration; readers can do that for themselves. But what I think it shows is that tiny acts can change the course of world history. The ability of that small boy to stay afloat in the storm-tossed ocean on that fateful night has changed the lives of millions of people.

Perhaps there is some truth in the saying “a butterfly beating its wings can unleash a hurricane on the other side of the world”.

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First published in the Ballarat Courier on April 21, 2009.

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About the Author

John Ditchburn is a freelance cartoonist. More of his cartoons can be found here.

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