- Elian Gonzalez was returned to Cuba at age 6 after a tragic attempt to get to the U.S.
- He had not left Cuba since then until now; he is going to Ecuador for a youth conference
- "Fidel Castro for me is like a father," Gonzalez said in a recent interview
Elian Gonzalez, the focus of a bitter international custody dispute after he was rescued at sea as a child, left Cuba on Friday for the first time since 2000, when the U.S. government returned him to the island.
Gonzalez, who also turned 20 on Friday, traveled to Quito, Ecuador, as part of a 200-member Cuban delegation to a weeklong youth conference there.
It marks a return to the international spotlight for Gonzalez, who recently said in an interview published in Cuba's state-run media that his fame continues to follow him in Cuba.
"Wherever I go there's always a child, an old woman that comes to me and wants to meet me," he said. "Not because I am famous but because they suffered with my family."
In 1999, Gonzalez, then 6 years old, was found clinging to an inner tube on the open sea after the rickety boat he was traveling in from Cuba to the United States sank. Gonzalez's mother and nine other people who were taking part in the clandestine journey drowned.
After his rescue, 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 on the island 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 out 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 federal agents then raided the home of Gonzalez's uncle and seized the boy.
Gonzalez was reunited with his father, and after a few more weeks of court proceedings -- ending with the Supreme Court rejecting the Miami relatives' efforts to get him back -- the father and son returned to Cuba. There the government celebrated a political victory but largely kept Elian Gonzalez out of public view and surrounded by government bodyguards.
A state celebration was held on the 10th anniversary of his return to Cuba.
"Fidel Castro for me is like a father," Gonzalez said in the recent interview. "I don't profess to have any religion but if I did my God would be Fidel Castro. He is like a ship that knew to take his crew on the right path."
Now a military cadet studying industrial engineering, Gonzalez said he would have suffered had he stayed in the United States.