HAVANA (AP) — Elian Gonzalez, who spent months with his Florida relatives as a Cuban child at the center of an international custody dispute, said in an interview broadcast Monday that he’d like to return to the United States for a visit.
Now 21, Gonzalez told ABC News in an interview that if he could visit anywhere, it would be the U.S.
Gonzalez thanked the American people for the love they showed him during the custody battle 15 years ago, and said he would like to go back “to give my love to the American people.”
He said he’d like to see a baseball game, visit Washington museums and talk to Americans.
“I could personally thank those people who helped us, who were there by our side. Because we’re so grateful for what they did.”
ABC’s images of Gonzalez captured over several days showed him first with a beard, then clean-shaven.
Gonzalez is a local celebrity on the island and was a military cadet when he was in his late teens. He is now studying industrial engineering at the university in the Cuban province of Matanzas, west of the capital. According to the interview, he recently became engaged to be married.
He was just a few weeks shy of 6 when his mother, Elizabeth Brotons, died at sea in 1999 while trying to take him to the U.S.
Gonazlez survived by clinging to an inner tube and was rescued on the high sea, eventually ending up with Florida relatives who fought to keep him in the United States.
“I was alone in the middle of the sea, that’s the last thing I remember,” Gonzalez said. He said he was moved by his mother’s efforts to keep him afloat while he drowned.
“She fought until the very last minute to keep me alive,” he said.
The tug-of-war between Gonzalez’s U.S. relatives and his father ensued, with then-president Fidel Castro siding with the boy’s surviving parent Juan Gonzalez and the Miami-based Cuban exile community backing family members in Florida.
For months, Cuba’s Communist government organized almost daily marches of thousands of people demanding that the child be returned to the island.
News media camped outside the home where Gonzalez was staying in Miami, with cameras constantly trained on him and his relatives.
The case sparked a debate about parental rights that raged on both sides of the Florida Straits.
President Bill Clinton’s administration ultimately backed the father’s rights and allowed him to take his son back to Cuba in mid-2000.
The ABC report said Gonzalez said he had no regrets about his father’s decision to stay in Cuba, and he’s not angry with his Miami relatives and open to reconciliation.
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