Elián González, the little boy who 16 years ago found himself at the center of a controversial custody battle between his father in Cuba and his relatives in the United States, praised Fidel Castro, who, he said, made it possible for him to return to his home country.
González appeared on a government-run television program Sunday and said that Castro, who died Friday at age 90, was like a father and a friend to him.
“He is my father who, like my father, I wanted to show him everything I achieved. That he would be proud of me. That's how I was with Fidel,” González said in a subtitled portion of the interview posted online by NBC Latino. “If I learned something and wanted to show him, and there are still many things that I wanted to show him. … That in a public event he said he considered me a friend, it was an honor.”
González was 5 years old when his mother and several others set off across the water to try to get to the United States. His mother died, but the boy survived and was rescued by fishermen. He was later taken to his relatives' home in South Florida. What followed was an international tug of war waged by Castro, who had led demonstrations demanding that González be returned to his father.
In April 2000, heavily armed federal immigration agents raided the boy's family home in Miami. González was found in a bedroom halfway inside a closet as Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who rescued him from the Atlantic Ocean, carried him in his arms.
A picture from the raid shows González crying as he looked at the armed federal agent. Agents reported that the boy was calm afterward. He was later reunited with his father, stepmother and 6-month-old half-brother.
U.S. authorities eventually sent him back to Cuba.
Last year, González, then 21 years old, told ABC News that he would like to come back to the United States, but only as a tourist.
“To the American people, first I say thank you for the love they give me,” González said, according to ABC News. “I want the time to give my love to American people.”
On Sunday, he returned to public view to remember Castro.
“Fidel was a friend who at a difficult moment was with my family, with my father, and made it possible for me to return to my father, to return to Cuba,” he said in the interview, according to the Associated Press.
He said people should not talk about Castro “in the past tense … but rather that Fidel will be.”
Castro rose to power in 1959, promising to share his nation's wealth with its poorest citizens. Followers and supporters of the late Cuban revolutionary leader saw him as someone who educated, fed and provided health care to his people.
Cuba will observe nine days of mourning for Castro, who had long suffered from a mysterious illness.
Cubans will be able to “pay homage and sign the solemn oath of fulfilling to concept of revolution … as an expression of the will to continue Castro's ideas and our socialism,” the Organizing Committee of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, State and Government said, according to the AP.
A mass commemoration will be held Saturday. Castro's ashes will be interred the next morning at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery.
But while the streets of Havana were quiet and somber, the celebration and cheering in Miami lasted for several hours after Castro's death was announced late Friday night. Thousands took to the streets of Little Havana to celebrate the death of a man they saw as a tyrannical leader of their home country. Drivers honked their horns, and some played drums and banged pots. Others carried U.S. and Cuban flags.
But González thinks Castro's ideals should not die with him.
“Now, without him by our side, it's up to us to open a path forward. It's up to us to execute the concepts of the revolution,” he said in a dubbed portion of the interview posted by WPLG Local 10.
Kevin Sullivan and J.Y. Smith contributed to this report.