HAVANA — Elian Gonzalez, the center of an international custody battle waged by Fidel Castro nearly two decades ago, returned to the public eye Sunday to praise the leader who fought to return him to Cuba.
Echoing the round-the-clock adulation on state media, Gonzalez said on government-run television that the Cuban leader's legacy will long outlive him.
It's "not right to talk about Fidel in the past tense ... but rather that Fidel will be," Gonzalez said. "Today more than ever, make him omnipresent."
Gonzalez was 5 when he, his mother and others attempted a sea crossing between Cuba and the United States in 1999. His mother died on the voyage, but he survived and was taken to Florida. A bitter dispute broke out between his relatives in the U.S., who wanted him to stay there, and his father back home.
Castro, who died Friday night at 90, made the issue a national cause celebre and led huge demonstrations demanding Elian be returned to his father. U.S. 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," Gonzalez said.
He spoke as workers spruced up the Cuban capital's 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 Havana's towering monument to independence hero Jose Marti and a huge sculpture of revolution leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
A mass public ceremony is planned at the square Tuesday.
"It is a great sorrow. Everyone is feeling it," said Orlando Alvarez, a jeweler who was fishing on the seaside Malecon boulevard in the morning. "Everyone will be there."
Cuba's government declared nine days of national mourning after Castro died and this normally vibrant city has been notably subdued. On Saturday night, the Malecon, Havana's social center, 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," Spanish tourist Miguel Gonzalez said as he took pictures of Revolution Plaza.
This story has been corrected to say that the crossing was in 1999 instead of 2000.