It made for astonishing television - and an unusual ethical quandary that brought the Miami relatives some of their heaviest criticism yet.
One out-of-town newspaper likened it to a prisoner-of-war video. In south Florida, an editorial in The Miami Herald called it ``media tactics.'' And Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, denounced it as ``deeply disturbing.''
The questions reverberated: Can a 6-year-old boy make a valid decision to speak his mind on television? Or was he being manipulated by his relatives for political ends?
``Papa, I don't want to go to Cuba. If you want, stay here. I'm not going to Cuba,'' national television audiences saw Elian saying Thursday. In a red shirt and striped shorts, he was animated and fidgety, sitting in front of the wooden headboard of a bed.
The video was obtained by the Spanish-language Univision network and broadcast on U.S. one television network and cable networks, producing vehement protests by the lawyer for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Attorney Gregory Craig implored the media to stay away from the child, saying he ``has been exploited enough.''
``Mr. Gonzalez - and only Mr. Gonzalez - has the legal and moral right to speak for Elian Gonzalez,'' Craig said. ``Mr. Gonzalez has not given his permission or approval for any journalist to interview, photograph, film or broadcast his son.''
Spencer Eig, an attorney for the Miami relatives, said Elian's plea was genuine and warranted. ``How is that exploiting him? He's only trying to save himself,'' Eig said.
``This is what Elian has said every day for the five months he's been to America,'' Eig said. ``Was it a good idea to put a camera in the room and to document it? Well, this family was tired, they were frightened, they were exhausted because of the constant deadlines and the constant threats.''
Even in an age of instantaneous transmission, when TV is not only a source of information but a conduit for partisan messages, the implications were extraordinary. While the relatives had long said Elian wanted to stay, hearing it from the child's mouth on the very day the government had ordered him turned over was something else entirely.
``It's unconscionable that they would use that child that way,'' Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said, adding that Elian had been ``brainwashed.''
``Speaking to his father in that manner, no 6-year-old child would initiate that on his own,'' Waters said. ``They put those words in that young boy's mouth, and that is the worst kind of exploitation of a child that you could ever see.''
While many called the video itself propaganda, the ABC TV Network decided to use it in the context of demonstrating how the propaganda war was escalating, said Paul Friedman, the network's executive vice president and managing editor of news coverage. ABC already had been criticized for its recent interview with Elian Gonzalez.
Outside the great-uncle's house Friday, one demonstrator said she was pleased the video finally allowed Elian himself to be heard in the din.
``A lot of people think it's orchestrated by the family. I don't,'' said Maria Cancio, 26. ``I think those were the kid's true feelings. The only voice that matters is his, and it's the only voice that's not being heard.''
Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education center, agreed that the motives of Elian's Miami relatives in releasing the tape should be questioned. But he said everyone else's, including the media's, should as well.
``It's inescapable that Elian's voice and his 6-year-old desires are part of the story,'' Steele said. ``I remain deeply troubled by how we use him as the centerpiece over and over in this very ugly game of ideological chess.''