One name stands out on the guest list of thousands of youth at a conference in Ecuador this week: Elian Gonzalez.
Fourteen years after he made headlines as the subject of a bitter international custody battle, Gonzalez spoke to CNN on Tuesday.
It’s his first trip abroad since the U.S. government removed him at gunpoint from his relatives’ home in Miami and, after a legal battle, sent him back to Cuba to live with his father.
Gonzalez, who turned 20 last week, was just 6 years old when he was found clinging to an inner tube after the tiny boat he was traveling in from Cuba sank on the way to the United States. Gonzalez’s mother and nine other people in the boat drowned.
He had harsh words for the United States on Tuesday as he recalled his mother’s deadly journey.
Elian Gonzalez, then 6, cowers in the arms of Donato Dalrymple on April 22, 2000, as federal officers charge in to take custody of the boy.
“Just like her, many others have died attempting to go to the United States. But it’s the U.S. government’s fault. Their unjust embargo provokes an internal and critical economic situation in Cuba,” Gonzalez said.
“But, despite that, Cuba, even with all its problems has progressed over the years. The progress we’ve made is all thanks to Cuba’s courage, our dignity, our continued fight for a more just model.”
Gonzalez is in Quito, Ecuador, for the World Festival of Youth and Students, a left-wing conference attracting more than 10,000 people from all over the world to discuss global struggles against imperialism.
He told CNN en Español that he has been asked to speak at the conference, but isn’t quite sure what his topic will be.
“My topic could range anywhere from the lifting of the unjust blockade on Cuba to the freedom of the ‘Cuban Five.’ The main reason we’re here is because we want a revolutionary progressive movement that leads to socialism,” he said.
The five Cubans imprisoned in the United States are convicted on charges of espionage, but are considered heroes in Cuba because many believe they prevented acts of terrorism on the island.
After his rescue in 1999, Gonzalez was placed with relatives in Miami, who wanted to keep him in the United States.
But Gonzalez’s father, Juan Miguel, fought to bring him back to Cuba. Then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro led massive protests in Cuba demanding Gonzalez’s return. The case of the telegenic boy became a flashpoint between supporters and opponents of Castro’s revolution.
As the two sides fought the high-profile case in court, U.S. immigration officials decided to put Gonzalez in the custody of his father, who had come to the United States to argue for Elian’s return. His relatives in Miami refused to go along, and armed U.S. federal agents then raided the home of Gonzalez’s uncle and seized the boy.
Some experts at the time worried Gonzalez would suffer a lifetime of trauma as a result of the dispute, or become a political pawn for the Cuban government.
After Gonzalez’s return to Cuba, the government there celebrated a political victory but largely kept Gonzalez out of public view and surrounded by government bodyguards.
But the case had an undeniable impact on Gonzalez’s life. Fidel Castro attended his 7th birthday party. His father went from being a waiter to being a member of the country’s national assembly.
Now he studies engineering at a military school in Cuba and appears to be emerging as a new spokesman for the Cuban government.
When asked by CNN en Español to describe what his life has been like since he left Miami, Gonzalez said “magnificent.” In Cuba, he said, everywhere he goes he feels the love and support of his fellow Cubans.
“I haven’t suffered any consequences because of what happened. It has not affected me psychologically, but it has been hard for my family,” Gonzalez said. “Those were tough times.”