(Reuters) – Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban castaway boy who became the object of an international custody battle a decade ago in Miami, said on Wednesday he was happy he ended up back in Cuba.
But, in his first public comments in several years, he also said he has no hard feelings toward the Miami relatives who fought to keep him there, on grounds that he would have a better life in the United States.
“This is the place I belong. Here I feel good,” Gonzalez told reporters after a Havana church service commemorating the 10th anniversary of his return.
“Thanks to the help of a big part of the American people and of our people, today I’m with my father, and that is everything,” said the clean-cut 16-year-old who is studying to become a Cuban military officer.
Elian was a photogenic five-year-old when he was found floating on an inner tube off the Florida coast in November 1999.
His mother and other Cubans accompanying the boy had died trying to get to the United States from the communist island 90 miles to the south.
His case quickly became another battleground in the long-running feud between Havana and Miami, as his great-uncle’s family tried to keep him in the United States.
Fidel Castro launched an international campaign for his return to his father and grandparents, which carried the day when U.S. immigration agents seized the boy at gunpoint from the Miami home of his relatives, who had refused to give him up.
“Even though they didn’t support us in everything … I have no bitterness toward them,” Elian said of his family in the United States.
He was returned to Cuba and a big welcome on June 28, 2000. Two days later, Fidel Castro attended a celebratory service at the same Episcopal church where Wednesday’s event was held.
Castro, now 83 and ailing, did not attend this time, but his brother and replacement, President Raul Castro, sat front and center with young Elian, who was dressed in white jeans and a striped short-sleeve shirt.
They chatted throughout the service and President Castro hugged him and his family before leaving, without speaking to reporters.
To the chagrin of the anti-Castro Cuban exiles in Florida, Gonzalez has joined Cuba’s ruling Communist Party and supports the revolution that put Fidel Castro in power in 1959.
He is mostly shielded from the press, but stories about him occasionally appear in Cuban media.
His father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, speaking to reporters while he and his son posed for pictures with church-goers, said it was definitely the right decision to bring Elian back to Cuba.
“I am even more certain today than I was at that moment,” he said. “To see him today, doing well, with good grades in school, it shows that what we did, we did not do for no reason.”
Unlike his son, the elder Gonzalez said he still bears a grudge against the family in Miami for not helping him get Elian back, and he had a simple message for them.
“Here, we are united, with my people, who behaved better than they did,” he said.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)