Five years on, Elian says uncles held him against his will

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The Independent US

Elian Gonzalez was six when the ramshackle boat carrying him from Cuba to the Florida coast disintegrated and sank, killing his mother and 10 other Cubans. Five years later, in a television interview, he will say he was held in Miami by his great-uncle against his will.

His memories of the 149 days of legal wrangling over his fate are not so bad that he does not hope one day to return to Florida, he said, to revisit the assorted cousins, uncles and great-uncle who tried so hard to win custody. The stand-off ended when the then US attorney general, Janet Reno, ordered an armed raid on his great-uncle's house and deported Elian to Cuba, into the care of his father.

But in a CBS 60 Minutes current affairs programme, Elian will say his Miami relatives "told me bad things" about his father in Cuba. "They were also telling me to tell [my father] that I did not want to go back to Cuba and I always told them I wanted to."

A CBS spokesperson said the boy was interviewed in Cuba in early September and the Cuban authorities set no restrictions on what could be asked. Nor did any officials attend it.

But the views of the 11-year-old - who had referred to President Fidel Castro as "a father" and "a friend" - were dismissed by his family in Florida as the thoughts of a child brainwashed by the regime. In Cuba, he has been cast as a patriot hero; he occasionally appears at government rallies.

Delfin Gonzalez, the spokes-man for the Miami branch of the Gonzalez family, said the boy has "inevitably" fallen under the Castro spell. "The exile community here predicted that would happen," he said. "It's no surprise. But when you live in the devil's house, you have to do what he says."

Such was the anger of many in the large Cuban-American community in Florida at the time of Elian's return to Cuba in the spring of 2000, it eroded support for Al Gore in the race for the White House that year.

The controversy over Elian may even have contributed to the razor-thin victory Mr Bush scored both of Florida and subsequently of the presidency itself.

Ms Reno, in a speech at Duke University in North Carolina last week, recalled being reviled by many for her decision but said she has no regrets. She said "one of the moments I'll most remember" was seeing photos of Elian smiling when reunited with his father in Cuba.

She added: "I feel almost joyful about it, because that's what people came to this country for, to be able to stand on the street corner and call me names."

And Elian says he would like to return to Miami. "Despite everything they did, the way they did it, it was wrong, they are my family," he said. "My uncles."