Elian Gonzalez thanks American people

Former castaway grateful to realize `dream of being a free child'

April 24, 2005|By Vanessa Bauza | Vanessa Bauza,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

HAVANA - Elian Gonzalez made his public speaking debut at a political rally late Friday night, thanking the American people for supporting his reunion with his father five years ago and making his "dream of being a free child come true."

Standing on a stage in his red-and-white school uniform, the 11-year-old former castaway faltered at times as he read a prepared speech recalling the day U.S. federal agents seized him from the home of his Miami relatives and turned him over to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

"Five years ago I returned to my dad," he said. "When I saw him, I got very happy. I could hug him. I could see my little brother. That was the happiest day of my life."

"I want to thank the American people for supporting our cause, which greatly contributed to my return," Elian told thousands of cheering, flag-waving Cubans assembled at Havana's "protest-o-drome," a plaza built in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission where government-organized rallies are often held. Dressed in his customary military uniform, President Fidel Castro sat in the front row with other government leaders.

Elian's speech also touched on the Cuban government's campaign to free five convicted Cuban agents who are serving sentences in U.S. federal prisons. He echoed Havana's frequent defense of the men as patriots who were working to prevent terrorism in Cuba at the hands of extremist exile groups in Miami. "Those five are heroes of our history," Elian said. "On behalf of the Cuban people, I want to ask the American people to do [for them] as they did for me to return to my family."

Elian ended his speech by saying Cuba's socialist revolution "is as big as the sky" and repeating the common slogan, "Homeland or Death, we shall overcome!"

Though the billboards and T-shirts exhorting Elian's return have disappeared, the sixth-grader remains a powerful symbol in Cuba, embodying Castro's political victory against Cuban-Americans exiles, who had vowed to keep him in the United States.

Elian was thrust into the international spotlight when he was only 5, surviving a shipwreck that killed his mother and 10 others. He clung to an inner tube in the Florida Straits for two days until fishermen plucked him from the sea off Fort Lauderdale. A fierce, seven-month custody battle ensued, pitting his father against his uncles and aunts in Miami. After months of waiting, Elian and his father returned to Cuba after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the boy's Miami relatives.

Since Elian's return to Cuba in June 2000, he has appeared at political rallies with his father and stepmother, but his Friday night appearance was his first time speaking on a stage. Cuba's government has mostly shielded him from the media spotlight. Juan Miguel Gonzalez routinely denies interview requests, and plainclothes security agents are stationed in front of the family's home in Cardenas, 80 miles east of Havana.

After Elian spoke, a tearful Juan Miguel Gonzalez addressed the crowd, thanking Castro, whom he referred to as a "father," for his confidence and support. "On a day like today, five years ago, I recovered happiness. It was the moment we snatched our boy from the mafia," he said, referring to the Cuban-American exile community.

"I have enjoyed the happy childhood of my child," said Gonzalez, who works as a waiter and was elected to Cuba's National Assembly in 2003.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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