By VANESSA ARRINGTON, Associated Press Writer
Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban castaway whose international custody battle ended in his dramatic seizure from a Miami home five years ago, addressed a crowd of thousands Friday, thanking Cubans and Americans alike for fighting for his return to the island.
Elian, now 11, read a speech at a televised event in Havana marking the fifth anniversary of the April 22 raid in which armed U.S. federal agents snatched him from his Miami relatives in the first step to getting him back to Cuba.
“Five years ago I returned to my dad,” he said. “When I saw him, I became very happy. I could hug him, I could see my little brother. That was the happiest day of my life.”
Though the Cuban boy frequently appears in public alongside his father, this is the first time he has given an address at an event open to the international press. President Fidel Castro was among thousands in the audience and many of the boy’s remarks were sure to please the communist leader.
Elian was found clinging to an inner tube off the south Florida coast in November 1999. His mother, Elisabeth Brotons, perished with 10 other adults in a failed attempt to reach the United States. Elian, then 5, was one of only three survivors.
His rescue set off a seven-month custody battle by the boy’s relatives in Miami, who fought to keep the child in the United States. The young castaway became a cause celebre for Miami’s Cuban exiles.
The boy was reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, in the United States after the armed federal raid on his relatives’ home. Father and son returned to a hero’s welcome in Cuba the summer of 2000.
Elian thanked his family, Castro and the Cuban people for their help bringing him home.
“I also want to thank the support given to our cause by the American people, which contributed greatly to my return,” he said.
Elian’s father also spoke at Friday’s event, which included dance and music performances as well as speeches by young Cubans.
“I have enjoyed the happy childhood of my son,” the father said. His presence in Cuba “is proof that the mafia in Miami lost again.”
Cuba’s state-run press on Friday accused Elian’s anti-Castro relatives in Miami of a “cruel kidnapping,” and referred to Elian’s seizure from the house as a rescue from “the hands of the terrorist Miami mafia.”
One young Cuban girl speaking Friday said she was happy Elian has spent these last several years on the island, where he “has the privilege of living in a socialist country.”
In his prepared remarks, Elian spoke of how he enjoys running, jumping, playing and reading in Cuba, and mentioned the television and computer he shares with his classmates in Cardenas, the coastal city east of Havana where he lives.
“I want to thank everyone who made my dream of being a free boy come true,” said Elian, whose speech prompted enthusiastic applause from the crowd.