Elian Gonzalez was 6-years-old when he became the center of an international custody dispute between his Miami relatives and his father in Communist Cuba.
Cuban President Fidel Castro repeatedly urged President Bill Clinton to return the boy to his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, in Cuba.
Now 22, Gonzalez appeared on Cuban state-run TV on Saturday to remember Fidel Castro who died at age 90 of natural causes.
“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," he said.
He added: “(It’s) not right to talk about Fidel in the past tense, but rather than Fidel will be… Today more than ever, make him omnipresent.”
Gonzalez, who is in college studying to be an engineer, said Castro's legacy is in the social programs and medical missions that improved the lives of Latinos and Africans.
“Fidel’s legacy is in each person affected by our programs, in every life saved from Ebola, in every Haitian saved with our missions, in every Latin American who’s had eye surgery or who learned a sport or how to write through our missions,” he said.
He added: “Fidel’s legacy is in every doctor, in every art institute. Fidel’s legacy is me and every young person who has grown under his teachings…"
In November 1999, Gonzalez, his mother, and others fled Cardenas, Cuba in a makeshift boat that later capsized on the high seas. His mother and some of the Cuban refugees drowned.
Little Elian survived by clinging to the side of an inner tube for 2 days. He was rescued on Thanksgiving day by two fisherman.
Gonzalez's rescue touched off months of failed negotiations and legal battles that went all the way to the Supreme Court. On April 22, 2000 the late Janet Reno gave the order for federal agents to return Gonzalez to his father by force.
Years later, Gonzalez would say if he were religious, "My God would be Fidel Castro."
Gonzalez fondly remembered the last time he saw Castro before he died. It was on his graduation day from high school when the elderly dictator invited him to lunch.
“He started as that father until he became a friend,” Gonzalez said on Saturday. “And like my father, I wanted to show him everything I achieved so that he could be proud of me.”