In 1999, 6-year-old Elián González was founding floating in an aluminum raft not far off the coast of southern Florida. His mother had drowned during the treacherous journey from Cuba, their homeland, to the shores of the United States, where they had family residing in Miami. For the next six months, González became the center of a bitter international custody battle between his Cuban national father, his American relatives, and the Cuban and U.S. governments. After spending the last 15 years back in Cuba, González made his first public appearance as an adult on Monday — and he has some surprising things to say about the United States.
González, now 21 years old and newly engaged, recently reunited with ABC News' Jim Avila, who covered González's tumultuous plight from Cuba to America 15 years ago. In an interview that premiered on Good Morning America Monday, González told Avila that his wish now, as an adult, is to return to the United States. However, he may not want to stay here for good.
After González was rescued from the sea by two fisherman, he was placed in the custody of several relatives in Miami, who wanted the 6-year-old to stay in the United States and tried seeking political asylum for the young boy. González's father, however, wanted his son to return to Cuba, arguing that he had a right to his son's custody.
The family ordeal turned very public, with members of Miami's Cuban community rallying behind González's American relatives and requesting his stay in America. Meanwhile, the U.S. government got involved, of course, with the case reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately dismissed the case. In the end, then-Attorney General Janet Reno ordered González's return to Cuba.
Now, González wants to give back to the American people who supported him 15 years ago. “To the American people, first I say thank you for the love they give me,” González told ABC News in his first TV interview as an adult. “I want the time to give my love to American people.”
And he would like to return to America — but only as a tourist. It might sound surprising, considering González became a household name because of his escape from Cuba, and that his own mother died in order for her son to reach the United States, but González told ABC News he dreams of returning to the United States just to visit. Oh, and he would also like to see a baseball game or two, of course.
"For my family it has always been, we always have the desire to say to the American people, to say to each household our gratitude, appreciation and love that we have," González told Avila. "Perhaps one day we could pay a visit to the United States. I could personally thank those people who helped us, who were there by our side. Because we're so grateful for what they did."
González also said that he disagreed with his mother's illegal actions, but he knew that she "fought until the very last minute for me to survive." The young man added, "She was the one who gave life back to me at a time of danger."
Now, González is revered in his native Cuba, where a statue of his 6-year-old self is even erected in his honor in Havana. However, he's not sure if the statue is actually fashioned after him and his father, though many in Cuba say it is.
"It's every children [sic] in Cuba," he told ABC News. "I feel proud because I feel it is a statue that is evidence to everything that happened at that moment. It's a symbol of loyalty of what happened ... it represents a father that is trying to protect his son."
The 21-year-old currently lives with his father and stepmother, and according to Avila, is also content with his father's actions during that international custody battle. Avila added that González is "open to reconciliation" with his Miami relatives, who fought for his permanent stay in the United States.
But in the most uplifting news, González is engaged, and Avila helped him take his first selfie (pictured below) with his high-school sweetheart. It sounds like he has lived a well-adjusted life, despite the traumatic events that defined him years ago.
Images: screenshots/ABC News (3)