HAVANA (AP) — Elian Gonzalez, who as a boy was the focus of an international custody battle, said ailing President Fidel Castro called him Thursday and told him he was doing well.

"It was a very exciting moment," said Gonzalez, who turned 14 this month.

The youth spoke with Cuba's state television in his hometown of Cardenas, where National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon headed a celebration of the launch of Cuba's "Battle of Ideas," the ideological campaign that Castro began years ago during the monthslong tug-of-war to return Gonzalez to his father on the island.

Gonzalez returned to Cuba in mid-2000 after armed U.S. federal agents seized him from Miami relatives, with whom he lived after his mother died when their U.S.-bound boat capsized in the Florida Straits. The boy was among only three would-be immigrants who survived in the group, and he was found in the ocean clinging to an inner tube.

Gonzalez's great-uncle in Miami led the fight to keep him in the United States, sparking a debate about parental rights.

The "Battle of Ideas" has since become a kind of social works program aimed at increasing support for the communist-run system.

Castro, now 81, has not been seen in public for more than 16 months since announcing he had undergone intestinal surgery for a still undisclosed ailment and provisionally ceding power to his younger brother Raul, the defense minister and his constitutionally appointed successor.