An emotional Elian Gonzalez warmly remembers Fidel Castro as a second father who became a friend in the 16 years since U.S. officials returned the young boy to Cuba in a controversial decision that drew international headlines.
Cuban state TV aired an interview with Gonzalez as Havana prepared for hundreds of thousands of mourners to to descend on a downtown square Monday for two days of homage to Castro, the revolutionary hero and hard-line dictator who ruled Cuba for five decades. He died Friday at age 90.
"He is a father to me and, like my father, I wanted to show him everything I achieved," Gonzalez, now 22, said in the interview Sunday. "There are still things I wanted to show him, to make him feel proud."
Gonzalez said he considered it an "extraordinary honor" when Castro attended his sixth-grade graduation. They last spoke a few years ago when Gonzalez was finishing high school, he said. Castro stepped aside as president in favor of his brother, Raúl, in 2008 because of illness.
Gonzalez was 5 years old in November 1999 when his mother, her boyfriend and about a dozen others fled Cuba on a small fishing boat lashed to inner tubes, bound for Florida. The tiny flotilla was caught in a storm that killed his mother and most of the group.
Fishermen rescued Gonzalez and two others from waters off Miami. That set off an international custody battle, with family members in Florida demanding they be allowed to raise Elian.
The boy's father, who was divorced from Elian's mother, wanted his son returned to Cuba. Courts sided with the father, but family members in the United States refused to give up the boy.
The dispute drew large protests in Havana as well as Miami, where hundreds surrounded the house where Elian was living. Five months after Elian's arrival, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ordered federal law enforcement officials to seize him.
A photo of a Border Patrol agent apparently aiming a semiautomatic rifle at the teary-eyed tot circulated around the world. Elian, however, was quickly flown back to his homeland.
Gonzalez, in the broadcast, said he will always be grateful to Fidel Castro for aiding his return to Cuba. He said Castro's legacy continues to be the revolution, and that it is now up to Cubans to "fulfill" that revolution.
“Fidel’s legacy is each Cuban and person in the world who has been touched by the revolution," Gonzalez said. "Fidel’s legacy is in each person affected by our programs, in every life saved from Ebola, in every Haitian saved with our missions, in every Latin American who has had eye surgery."
Cuba's Council of State declared a nine-day Duelo Nacional, national mourning period, that began Saturday. After the two-day memorial in Havana's Revolutionary Plaza concludes, Castro's ashes will begin a tour around the country on Wednesday, with Cubans everywhere provided an opportunity to pledge allegiance to the revolution. The journey ends next Sunday in Santiago, where Castro's funeral will take place.
While Cuba mourns, few tears were being shed for Castro in Miami, home to thousands of Cuban refugees and exiles. Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado called Castro a "symbol of tyranny and oppression" and asked that President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump press for change inside Cuba.
"I join more than 2 million members of the Cuban diaspora and millions inside the island celebrating this important step in advancing the goal of a free and democratic Cuba," Regalado said.