MIAMI(CBSMiami) — Elian Gonzalez, who became the center of an international custody battle that ended with a Miami raid by federal agents and riots, wants to visit the United States and wants the American people to know he loves them.
That was the thrust of an interview Elian – now 21, going to college and engaged to be married – gave to ABC News.
In the interview, the first extensive question answer session with Elian since he was a child, the once skinny little boy appears buffed out, and is alternately bearded and clean shaven during the days the ABC crew spent with him in Havana.
The boy said he has little recollection of the Thanksgiving day when the inner tube raft he was traveling on with his mother and her boyfriend from Cuba foundered in the Florida Straits. Only Elian survived.
“I was alone in the middle of the sea, and that’s the last thing that I remember,” Elian told ABC
A Communist party rock star in Cuba now, Elian said he doesn’t agree with what his mom did, but credits her with saving his life.
“I believe until this day she is not with me because she fought until the very last minute for me to survive,” he said.
Elian would live with Miami relatives for five months, and become the center of a custody fight between his father in Cuba and Miami relations.
The fight was decided when federal agents raided the Little Havana home and Elian was returned to Cuba.
In ABC’s story, Elian said he said he would like to return to the United States as a tourist.
His great uncle Delfin said that would be great.
“It would be abnormal for him to say that he would not want to go to the United States,” Delfin Gonzalez said. “Everybody wants to come over. It’s filled with opportunities.”
But at the landmark Versailles restaurant, some viewed Elian as a pariah, a propaganda tool.
“He’s where he belongs now. He’s grown up in Cuba, a different mentality now,” said Lissette Castaneda. “I wish him well over there, but do not welcome him here.”
Others have put Elian behind them.
“You have to forget about what happens, you know? You cannot remember the past and continue living,” said Lissette Montenegro. “You just have to let it go and be free and live your life.”
Attorney Kendall Coffey, among a group of prominent lawyers who fought to keep Elian in the United States, said he regrets none of it.
“I’m glad we gave his dying mother a chance that her wish that her son could come here and live a life of freedom might be a reality,” Coffey said.
Elian told ABC that when he visits the U.S. he wants to take in a baseball game and see some museums in Washington, D.C.
“I want to give my love to the American people,” he said.