Elian Gonzalez

The infamous photograph of Elian Gonzalez being taken by US federal officials. Image: Cliff via Flickr CC.

Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy found floating off the coast of Florida in 1999 and later forced to leave the United States, recently had his first English-language interview since age 11. Gonzalez, now 21, spoke with ABC news about his memories of his time in the US and his desire to come back and visit to thank everyone who supported him.

Attorney Kendall Coffey, one of the group of prominent lawyers who fought to allow Elian to stay in the US, recalls the tumultuous time without regret. “I’m glad we gave his dying mother a chance that her wish that her son could come here and live a life of freedom might be a reality,” he said.

Gonzalez was found drifting on an inner tube raft in the Florida Straits. He’d traveled from Cuba with his mother and her boyfriend in a boat, but after it capsized, he was the only survivor. His arrival and subsequent five-month stay with local family ignited a controversial lawsuit and questions of legality concerning immigrants. Ultimately Gonzalez returned to his father in Cuba, but not before armed federal agents raided his family’s Miami home and took him into custody.

As an adult, Gonzalez expresses an interest in visiting the United States, but only as a tourist (in his ABC interview, he mentions wanting to see a baseball game, visit museums, and talk to Americans). He does not agree with his mother’s decision to immigrate illegally, but he recognizes that she fought to give him the best possible future, including saving his life during the dangerous boat ride.

Elian Gonzalez has built a life for himself in Cuba, including becoming engaged to his high school sweetheart. But with the relationship between Cuba and the United States starting to shift, he recognizes that now may be a good time to revisit the country that had such an impact on his childhood.

“To the American people, first I say thank you for the love they give me. […] I want the time to give my love to American people,” he says.