By Associated Press Writer
updated 7/1/2010 3:26:35 PM ET 2010-07-01T19:26:35

Elian Gonzalez says he's not angry at his Miami relatives who fought to keep him in the United States during a nasty international custody battle a decade ago, and is thankful "a large part of the American public" supported him being reunited with his father in Cuba.

Now 16, Gonzalez's first comments to foreign reporters in years came after President Raul Castro attended a state celebration Wednesday night marking the 10th anniversary of the famous ex-castaway's return to the island.

"Even though they didn't help me in every way possible, they didn't help me move forward, they are still my own family," Gonzalez said of his South Florida relatives, speaking in a shy, almost timid voice.

"I don't have anger for them," he said. "It's only that it wasn't the best effort possible, and thanks to a large part of the American public, and our public, today I'm with my father and I feel happy here."

When asked about the family's Miami relatives, however, Gonzalez's father, Juan Miguel, shot back that he was still angry, "because, at any moment, having the boy there and with me giving them opportunities so they can reunite the family, they let themselves get carried away with other things."

He added that bringing his son back was still the right thing to do, saying, "today I'm more sure than I was then."

Elian was a photogenic 5-year-old when a fisherman found him floating off the coast of Florida in an inner tube on Thanksgiving Day 1999, after his mother and others fleeing Cuba drowned trying to reach American soil. His father, who was separated from his mother, had remained on the island.

U.S. immigration officials ruled the boy should return to Cuba over the objections of his Miami relatives and other Cuban exiles, creating a national furor that caused even presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore to weigh in. Many believe Cuban-Americans' outrage at how the case turned out helped cost Gore the White House.

Elian's Miami relatives refused to give him up, while in Cuba, Fidel Castro and religious leaders led constant marches calling for his return. State television crated a nightly "round-table" program that provided updates on the Gonzalez case and it endures today, though it now discuss all sorts of themes.

U.S. federal agents raided the Little Havana home of Elian's uncle with guns drawn on April 22, 2000, and seized the boy from a closet to return him to his father.

It took the pair another two-plus months to return to Cuba, and when they did, men, women and children jammed the road from Havana's airport, cheering, waving Cuban flags and throwing flowers as the motorcade carrying them passed.

The younger Gonzalez was celebrated as a hero and his father, a restaurant employee, was elected to parliament. Cuba has worked to play down the public persona of both since then, but the latest anniversary of their triumphant return proved an exception.

The evening marked the first time Cuba's current president stood in for its former leader at an event in Gonzalez's honor. Fidel Castro personally led major celebrations cheering Cuba's most-famous youngster in years past, marching in parades or delivering lengthy speeches.

But the 83-year-old has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery and giving up power — first temporarily, then permanently — almost four years ago.

The latest event was organized by Cuba's Council of Churches, which includes all major Cuban religions except the Roman Catholic Church, and was held at the Episcopal Santisima Trinidad Cathedral in Havana. The council staged a celebration in the same church days after Gonzalez's return in 2000.

"It was a triumph, not only of love and justice, but of logic over indecency of spirit, truth against evil," Rev. Marcial Miguel Hernandez, president of the Council of Churches, told those assembled Wednesday night.

A bit later, parliament head Ricardo Alarcon said that "for many in the United States, Elian's case was the discovery of the reality that the imperial propaganda, the industry of deception, tried jealously to hide."

A large screen behind all who spoke showed video footage from Gonzalez's return in 2000.

Studying to be an officer
Gonzalez wore a red-stripped dress shirt and sat in the front row next to Raul Castro, who was in a white Guayabera shirt and embraced him and patted him on the back before the event started. His father sat a row behind them, and his stepmother, two younger stepbrothers and grandmother, a faithful churchgoer, were in nearby rows.

"It's the land where I'm from," Gonzalez said of Cuba. "Here I feel good, and, thanks to my education and the strength my people have given me, today I'm almost a man."

Though the ceremony came two days after the actual anniversary, it also was unusual for Cuba to commemorate June 28, 2000, when Gonzalez arrived in Cuba, instead of his birthday on Dec. 7, which officials have often celebrated in Gonzalez's hometown of Cardenas, in Matanzas province east of the capital.

As he has grown up, authorities have shielded Gonzalez from foreign reporters and, before the ceremony, his only recent photograph appeared in April, when he sported closely cropped hair and a military school uniform during a Young Communist Union congress.

Government media marked the 10th anniversary last weekend, reporting Gonzalez is studying to become an officer at the Camilo Cienfuegos military school in Matanzas.

"The boy of yesterday is now a Cuban like any other," said the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde, adding that "a decade after being used as a toy by the enemies of the revolution ... he is preparing to be a future officer of the Revolutionary Armed Forces."

The revolution is what Cubans call the popular uprising that swept the Castro brothers to power in 1959.

The state news agency AIN wrote that Gonzalez "enjoys music, is a partygoer, although not a good dancer, who spends hours in front of the computer or weightlifting with his friends."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Elian Gonzalez, 10 years later

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  1. Cuban President Raul Castro and Elian Gonzalez attend a religious ceremony at Cathedral Episcopal de la Santisima Trinidad in Havana, Cuba, on June 30, 2010. The ceremony commemorated the 10th anniversary of his return to Cuba from the U.S. after he was found floating on a raft in the waters off of Florida on Thanksgiving Day, 1999. He was the sole survivor of a boat that capsized, killling his mother, stepfather, and nine other people bound for the U.S. (Adalberto Roque / Pool via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Elian, right, takes part in the IX Congress of the Communist Youth Union in Havana, Cuba on April 4, 2010. He is a cadet at the Camilo Cienfuegos military school. (Omara García Mederos / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Elian, wearing his school uniform, sits next to Cuba's then-President Fidel Castro in December 2005 in Cardenas, Cuba, at a political event commemorating the island's successful campaign to gain custody of the boy from the United States. (Jorge Rey / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Elian and his father sit together during a political rally at the former Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba in July 2003. (Alejandro Ernesto / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Elian Gonzalez arrives at Havana's Jose Marti international airport carried by his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, on June 28, 2000. (Ricardo Mazalan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Elian is held in a closet on April 22, 2000 by Donato Dalrymple, one of the two fishermen who rescued the him, as government officials enter his uncle's Miami home. Armed federal agents then seized Elian, firing tear gas into an angry crowd as they left the scene with the weeping 6-year-old boy. (Alan Diaz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen who found Elian floating in an inner tube off the coast of Florida, plays with him in his relatives' backyard in Little Havana in April 2000. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Elian plays while journalists swarm him in front of his great-uncle's residence in January 2000 in Miami's Little Havana. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Protesters line the streets in front of Elian's Miami relatives' home in Little Havana in April 2000. His relatives had announced they would not hand Elian over to his father during the appeals process if the father were to come to U.S. during the judicial process. (Meredith Davenport / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Elian's American relatives take him on a tour of the Lincoln Marti school in Miami in December 1999, where they picked up an application form for him. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Elian Gonzalez, center, walks to school in Miami's Little Havana, Fla., in February 2000 with his great uncle, Lazar Gonzalez (left), and cousin, Marysleisis Gonzalez. The custody battle over him was between his biological father, who lived in Cuba, and his Miami relatives, who wanted the boy to remain in the United States. (Rhona Wise / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Cubans holding signs of Elian Gonzalez protest in Havana in December 1999. Some 20,000 protesters turned out to demand his return. (Adalberto Roque / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: New photos of Elian Gonzalez


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