HAVANA — Elián González, the boy who found himself at the center of a controversial custody battle between his father in Cuba and his relatives in the United States 16 years ago, on Sunday praised Fidel Castro, who, he said, made it possible for him to return to his home country.
González, now 22, appeared on a government-run television program and said Castro, who died on Friday at the age of 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. ... And 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 voyaged by boat from Cuba to get to the U.S. 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-o-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 relatives' 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 told ABC News that he'd like to come back to the U.S., 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 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 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 on Dec. 3. 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, while some played drums and banged pots. Others carried American and Cuban flags.
But for González, 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-TV in Miami.