How Elian grew up to become Castro's friend

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The Independent US

On Thursday evening, Elian Gonzalez graduated from sixth grade of his primary school in Cardenas, to the acclaim of President Fidel Castro, who made a special point of being there.

"I have the privilege to be his friend," declared a beaming Mr Castro at the 11-year-old's graduation ceremony.

In a speech broadcast from the boy's seaside home town of Cardenas, east of Havana, the Cuban leader said he was honoured to know Elian, who, in late 1999, was at the centre of a custody battle between a family divided between Cardenas and Miami.

Discovered floating alone and clinging on to an inner tube in the middle of the Florida Straits, Elian was one of just three survivors of a group of 14 Cubans who had set off from Cardenas in late November hoping to reach Florida.

His Miami-based relatives claimed that, as Elian's mother had died trying to get her son to freedom, it would be unjust were he to be sent back to Cuba.

But US courts ruled that Elian should be returned to his father, who had stayed behind in Cardenas.

Since his homecoming in 2000, Elian has lived a life in the coastal town which could almost be described as ordinary.

He earns money as a waiter at a nearby resort and on Thursday celebrated his successful completion of sixth grade with his school friends. But he has not been allowed to leave the days of international interest completely behind him.

He can occasionally be seen sitting in the front row at Cuban government events, where he appears comfortable, if a little bored, in the company of Mr Castro, who in turn seems to dote on him.

The publicity-conscious Cuban leader has always been aware of the importance of Elian growing up into a happy young man who is proud to be Cuban.

In 2000, when the boy returned to his country and started attending classes at the local school in Cardenas, Mr Castro urged teachers to do their best to make a prized pupil of him.

They must, he said, try their hardest "to turn him into a model boy, aware of his past" so that "in addition to being a normal pupil, he is also a symbol, an example and an inspiration among the children of our country".