Elián González, who as a young boy sat at the center a controversial international custody battle between Cuba and the United States, remembered Fidel Castro as a father figure in an emotional interview that aired on Cuban state TV on Saturday.
Castro, whose death at 90 was announced late Friday, was still in power when a 5-year-old González was rescued off the coast of Florida on Thanksgiving Day 1999. He had survived a shipwreck that had killed his mother, her boyfriend and several others when he was found adrift at sea holding onto an inner tube.
But a castaway rescue turned into a heated custody battle when González’s father in Cuba demanded the United States return the boy to the island. His relatives in Miami, however, wanted to raise the child in Florida.
The high-profile case prompted Castro to lead public demonstrations in Cuba asking for his return. And ultimately, the court ruled that González should go back to Cuba to live with his father.
When relatives refused to give up the boy, heavily armed federal agents raided their home and forcibly removed Elián from their custody in April 2000.
In May 2015, González’s spoke publicly about his relationship with Castro. He told ABC reporters, that since his return to Cuba the former head of state had not only called him every year on his birthday but visited his school and featured him in major national events.
In Saturday’s interview, which aired on government-run television along with other pro-Castro programming, the now 21-year-old González said it was an “honor” that Castro had once publicly called him a friend. He also praised the late revolutionary leader and asked that he remain “omnipresent,” according to the Associated Press.
“Fidel began to be a father, initially they all start as fathers but what’s difficult is to have a father become a friend,” González said holding back tears. “And he was a father who, like with my father, I wanted to show him everything I achieved. I wanted him to be proud of me. That’s how it was with Fidel. If I learned to do something, I wanted to show him. And there are many things that I didn’t get to show him.”
González remained largely out of the public eye after his return to Cuba. But in recent years, he’s begun to make more frequent public appearances, going on record to praise the Castro regime and the island’s government.
“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,” Gonzalez said in the broadcast over the weekend, according to the AP.
González not only spoke about his close relationship with Castro over the years but also assured viewers that his legacy would live on.
“Fidel’s legacy is each Cuban and person in the world who has been touched by the revolution,” he said, according to USA Today. “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.”
Watch a clip of González’s interview above.