Elin Gonzlez praises Fidel Castro 17 years after infamous custody battle

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Man who was centre of custody battle with US waged by Castro in 1999 says leaders legacy will long outlive him

Elin Gonzlez, who was at the centre of an international custody battle waged by Fidel Castro nearly two decades ago, returned to the public eye on Sunday to praise the leader who fought to return him to Cuba.

Echoing the round-the-clock adulation on state media, Gonzlez said on government-run television that the Cuban leaders legacy would long outlive him. Its not right to talk about Fidel in the past tense … but rather that Fidel will be, Gonzlez said. Today more than ever, make him omnipresent.

Gonzlez was five in 1999 when he, his mother and others attempted a sea crossing between Cuba and the US. His mother died on the voyage but he survived and was taken to Florida. A bitter dispute broke out between his relatives in the US, who wanted him to stay there, and his father back home.

Elin Gonzlez attends a gala for the 90th birthday of Fidel Castro at the Karl Marx theatre in Havana, Cuba in August. Photograph: Ismael Francisco/AP

Castro, who died Friday night at 90, made the issue a national cause celebre and led huge demonstrations demanding Elin be returned to his father. US authorities eventually sent him back.

Fidel was a friend who at a difficult moment was with my family, with my father, and made it possible for me to return to my father, to return to Cuba, Gonzlez said.

He spoke as workers spruced up the Cuban capitals sprawling Revolution Plaza in preparation for two days of tributes.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to visit to pay their respects starting Monday in the shadow of Havanas towering monument to the independence hero Jos Mart and a huge sculpture of the revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara.

A mass public ceremony is planned at the square on Tuesday. It is a great sorrow. Everyone is feeling it, said Orlando Alvarez, a jeweller who was fishing on the seaside Malecon boulevard in the morning. Everyone will be there.

Cubas government declared nine days of national mourning after Castro died and this normally vibrant city has been notably subdued. On Saturday night, the Malecon, Havanas social centre, was all but deserted, with dozens of people instead of the thousands who normally go to party there on weekends.

I have never seen this square so quiet, a Spanish tourist, Miguel Gonzlez, said as he took pictures of Revolution Plaza.

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