‘Castaway’ Elian Gonzalez saw Castro as a father figure
Elian Gonzalez, the boy who found himself at the centre of a controversial custody battle between his father in Cuba and his relatives in the United States 16 years ago, praised Fidel Castro, who, he said, made it possible for him to return to his home country.
Gonzalez appeared on a government-run television programme on Sunday and said Castro, who died on Friday at the age of 90, was like a father and a friend to him.
Watch: A look back on the life of Fidel Castro
“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,” Gonzalez 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 ... And that in a public event he said he considered me a friend, it was an honour.”
Gonzalez was five years old when his mother and several others voyaged to the Atlantic Ocean to get to the US. 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 Gonzalez be returned to his father.
In April 2000, heavily-armed federal immigration agents raided the boy’s family’s home in Miami. Gonzalez was found in a bedroom halfway inside a wardrobe 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 Gonzalez, 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 six-month-old half-brother.
US authorities eventually sent him back to Cuba.
Last year, Gonzalez, 21 at the time, said he’d like to come back to the US, but only as a tourist.
“To the American people, first I say thank you for the love they give me,” Gonzalez said, according to ABC News. “I want the time to give my love to American people.”
On Sunday, he went back 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 an interview with 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 Organising Committee of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, State and Government said.
But for Gonzalez, Castro’s ideals shouldn’t 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.