The boy at the center of an international custody battle five years ago is now a hero at home

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated September 30, 2005 03:00 PM

Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy at the center of an international custody battle five years ago, considers his native country’s president, Fidel Castro, his friend – and also says he hopes to see his Miami family again someday, “despite everything they did.”

In a report and interview scheduled to air on CBS’s 60 Minutes Sunday night and previewed on the network’s Web site, Elian’s story includes Castro’s attendance at the boy’s elementary school graduation and the leader’s declaration that he is proud to have Gonzalez as his friend.

Elian returns the compliment. “It’s also very moving to me, and I also believe I am his friend,” the boy, now 11, tells the program, adding that he also believes that he could call Castro on the phone if he wanted to.

Elian triggered a seven-month custody battle after he was rescued off the Florida coast in 1999 during a failed attempt to reach U.S. shores. His mother died at sea, and his Miami relatives and Cuban exile groups fought ferociously to prevent his return to Cuba.

The boy was reunited with his father in Cuba after U.S. authorities raided his relatives’ home on April 22, 2000, and removed Elian, who was hidden in a closet. “It was wrong,” Gonzales tells 60 Minutes about his relatives’ actions, but “they are my family … my uncles,” and he still feels close to them, he says.

Regarding his five months spent with his American relations, Gonzales says they attempted to persuade him to stay in the U.S.

“They were telling me bad things about (my father) … They were also telling me to tell (my father) that I did not want to go back to Cuba, and I always told them that I wanted to,” he tells the program. He also remembers being homesick for his father, school and his friends back in Cuba.

CBS spokesman Kevin Tedesco tells the Associated Press that 60 Minutes interviewed Gonzalez three weeks ago at a museum in Cardenas, Cuba, the boy’s hometown. Tedesco added that the boy’s father was present, but there were no Cuban monitors or officials and no ground rules.

The boy’s aunt, Angela Gonzalez, told AP on Thursday that she is not sure whether Elian truly believes what he said in the interview. She also said family members in the U.S. have been prevented from having contact with the boy.