— -- Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban castaway boy rescued off the coast of Florida in 1999 by a pair of sport fishermen, spoke fondly of Fidel Castro on Saturday, describing the late former Cuban leader as a father figure who became a friend.
Gonzalez, then five-years-old, was found floating on an inner tube after his mother and other Cubans died while trying to escape communist Cuba for the U.S., where he had relatives. Interestingly, he was found on November 25, 1999 -- exactly 16 years prior to the day of Castro's death.
A high-profile custody battle ensued, pitting his father in Cuba -- who had the backing of Castro -- against family members in Miami, who sought to keep him in the U.S. The international incident was eventually resolved after a U.S. government assault team seized Gonzalez, after U.S. courts ruled for the father. The ruling was perceived as a victory for Castro, and a loss for the community of Cuban exiles in the U.S.
"Fidel began to be that father like all who start off as as fathers, but the difficult thing is for a father to become a friend without ceasing to be a father," Gonzalez, now 22, told Cuban state media in Spanish on Saturday, a day after Castro died at the age of 90. "He started as that father until he became a friend. And like my father, I wanted to show him everything I achieved so that he could be proud of me."
Gonzalez spoke of two specific interactions with Castro that are most memorable.
"He attended my sixth-grade graduation ... and in a public act [he said] he considered me his friend," says Gonzalez. "At first, it was an extraordinary honor, but also a heavy load ... It was years later that I realized that I had a commitment [to him] because I was Fidel’s public friend. But Fidel was everyone's friend ... Fidel was that friend who was with my family, with my father at the most difficult moment, and who made it possible that I came back to my father and back to Cuba. And so that what I will always be thankful for."
The other memorable moment, says Gonzalez, is the last time the pair saw each other.
"Another unforgettable memory is the last time I had the opportunity to be with him and speak with him, he invited me to lunch," Gonzalez said. "I was about to finish high school. I was anxious because I didn’t know what I was going to study or do. And I also had that weight of making him feel proud, and my father and the Cuban people and to study something that would be good for the people."
He adds, "For all the effort I put in to ask him, for all the times I would seek his help, he didn’t respond. He didn't give me guidance at that moment and it was after that I learned that he was always there."
Gonzalez also spoke about Castro's legacy.
"I think Fidel's legacy is this, it's right here: Fidel's legacy is each Cuban and person in the world who was been formed by the revolution. Fidel's legacy is in each person affected by our programs, in every life saved form Ebola, in every Haitian saved with our missions, in every Latin American who's had eye surgery or who learned a sport or how to write through our missions. Fidel's legacy is in every doctor, in every art institute. Fidel's legacy is me and every young person who has grown under his teachings, and I think the best thing we can do is to be faithful to those teachings."
He concluded, "Fidel prepared us for exactly this moment, because that's precisely what he did: He taught us to fly, he taught us to dream and it's now up to us. Now that we don't have [Castro] by our side anymore, it's up to us to lead the way, it's up to us to fulfill the revolution."