HAVANA (AP) - Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy who survived a boat sinking and became a political football during the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign as the subject of an international custody fight, is on his first trip overseas since being reunited with his father.
Cuban state-run media say Gonzalez is in Ecuador this week as part of a 200-strong delegation to the 23rd World Festival of Youth and Students, which runs through Friday.
In a recent interview published on the official website Cubadebate, Gonzalez said living in Cuba afforded him more privacy than if he had stayed in the United States.
"I'm a little shy, so when I stand up somewhere and know that the whole world is looking at me and I'm perhaps the center of attention ... it's pretty tough," Gonzalez said.
"I'd rather pass unnoticed," he added.
Gonzalez was just shy of his sixth birthday when the small boat that was carrying him, his mother and a dozen others went down near Florida. Gonzalez's mother was among those who died, but he was found floating in an inner tube, rescued and taken to the United States.
A bitter court battle ensued between Gonzalez's father, who demanded the boy be returned to him in Cuba, and Miami relatives, who insisted he stay with them.
Gonzalez became a political cause celebre both in Cuba, where the government organized mass marches proclaiming his right to be with his father, and among Florida exiles, who argued it would be inhumane to send him back to Communist-run Cuba and said his mother's wish to take him to the U.S. should be respected.
The case culminated with a dramatic raid on a house where U.S. federal agents retrieved Gonzalez at gunpoint, and he was flown back to the island in June 2000.
Gonzalez has been almost entirely out of sight since then, his privacy fiercely guarded by his father and Cuban officials. He attended a military academy as a cadet for a time and is now studying industrial engineering at Camilo Cienfuegos University of Matanzas.
In the interview, which was published to coincide with his 20th birthday on Friday, Gonzalez said the young man he is today was shaped by lessons from his parents. He also spoke of his admiration for retired leader Fidel Castro, who kept close tabs on his welfare over the years.
"He always came for my birthday. I always looked forward to that moment," Gonzalez said. "I'm a person of few words (and) I clammed up when he was there, but it was enough to see him and give him that hug."
"I always remember what he told me: That I was already somebody, that the whole world knew who I was, and now what I had to do was be good at something, that's what he asked of me," Gonzalez added. "He never cared which path I took ... the intention was that I be good at whatever I did."
Elian Gonzalez makes 1st trip abroad since 2000
MIAMI, FL - APRIL 22: Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez(L) is held in a closet by Donato Dalrymple, one of the fishermen that found him at sea, during an early morning raid by federal agents at the home of his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez 22 April 2000, in the Little Havana section of Miami, FL. Elian Gonzalez is enroute to reunited with his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez at Andrews Air Force Base, MD. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO POOL/rs (Photo credit should read ALAN DIAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Cuban 'balsero' (rafter) child Elian Gonzalez (L) and his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez take part 06 December, 2006 in Cardenas, 150 km east from Havana in a political ceremony. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
368119 02: Elian Gonzalez Has Lunch With His Father Juan Miguel Gonzalez At Andrews Air Force Base In Maryland April 23, 2000. (Photo By Getty Images)
CUBA - OCTOBER 20: File Photo of Fidel Castro and Elian Gonzalez in Santa Clara, Cuba on October 20th, 2004 - Cuban President Fidel Castro is seen in Santa Clara, about 300 km (183 miles) East of Havana, Cuba with Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez - US Channel CBS published last October 3rd, 2005 an exclusive interview of Elian Gonzales who declared he wants to be member of the Cuban National Assembly and he considers Fidel Castro as a friend and a father - Photo by Jose Goitia/GAMMA. (Photo by Jose GOITIA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Cuban President Raul Castro (L) talks with Cuban rafter-boy Elian Gonzalez (R), on June 30, 2010 in a church of Havana, during the celebration of 10th Anniversary of Elian's return from Miami. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
CARDENAS, CUBA - DECEMBER 6: Elian Gonzalez attends a celebration of his ninth birthday at the Marcelo Salado School December 6, 2002 in Cardenas, 155 kilometers east of Havana, Cuba. Elian was taken in by Miami relatives in November 1999 after being picked up off the Florida coast after the boat he was travelling in sunk, killing his mother. He was returned to Cuba in June 2000 after an eight-month international legal battle that ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images)
404760 05: Elian Gonzalez, 7, waves Cuban flags May 1, 2002 during a celebration of May Day at the Revolution Plaza of Havana, Cuba. Elian's Miami relatives unsuccessfully fought in court to keep the boy in the United States after his mother drowned during a boat crossing from Cuba to Florida in November 1999. Thousands gathered today to hear Cuban President Fidel Castro defend his revolution and attack Latin American critics for being what he called, 'lackeys of the United States.' (Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images)
HAVANA - DECEMBER 6, 2001: (FILE PHOTO) Elian Gonzalez (C), attends sings in his class on his 8th birthday, on December 6, 2001, in Cardenas, Cuba. Elian Gonzalez, the survivor of a 1999 Thanksgiving-week smuggling tragedy that killed his mother and nine other as leaving Cuba on a raft, will turn 16 on upcoming December 6, 2009. The Elian case had its beginnings on November 26, 1999, when Elian's mother, Elizabeth Brotons, who was divorced from his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez, drowned along with 10 others while trying to reach the United States from Cuba in a raft. Elian was one of three survivors. The US relatives of Elian insisted he should stay to be raised in the USA, while Cuba, under the active leadership of Fidel Castro, required that Elian be returned to Cuba. Seven months after he was cast adrift in the Florida straits, the CUBA-US custody battle culminated as Special INS Agents took Elian from the house of his uncle in Miami to re-unite him with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. On June 28, 2000, Elian returned to Cuba. (Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images)
Elian Gonzalez (C), his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez, holding his son, Hianni, and Elian's step-mother, Nersys Carmenate (R), participate in a Communist youth meeting in Havana, Cuba on 10 July 2001. Since Elian Gonzalez's return to Cuba, the government has stressed that it has respected his privacy, noting that he has made few public appearances in the past year. AFP PHOTO/Niurka BARROSO (Photo credit should read NIURKA BARROSO/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, : Olivia Burlingame (L) and Eduardo Burkhart (R) hold a prayer vigil outside the US Supreme Court calling for the return of Elian Gonzalez and his father to Cuba 28 June, 2000 in Washington, DC. The US Supreme Court announced this morning it will not hear the US relatives appeal to keep Elian in the country clearing the way for the boy and his father to return to Cuba later 28 June. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/Tim SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
MIAMI, : Estrella Martinez, (L), a Cuban-American woman living in Miami, reacts to the decision by the Supreme Court not to hear an appeal by the Miami relatives of six-year-old shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez while she sits across a federal courthouse in Miami 28 June 2000. It is believed that Elian will return to cuba in company of his father later. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO ROBERTO SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
371816 01: Elian Gonzalez is greeted by his grandfather Orlando Betancourt on his arrival to Havana, Cuba June 28, 2000. Elian left the United States for Cuba, ending a lengthy custody battle that came to symbolize four decades of bitterness between Cuban exiles and the communist country they fled. (Pool Photo/Newsmakers)
368099 01: FILE PHOTO: Elian Gonzalez waves to supporters as his cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez supports him, outside his Miami home April 21, 2000. The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way June 28, 2000 for shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez to return to Cuba, a crushing defeat for his Miami relatives in the international custody fight over the child. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)
Elian Gonzalez (R) plays with his baseball glove 10 May, 2000, accompanied by his Cuban schoolmate Marien Rodriguez at the Aspen Institute near Wye River Plantation in Maryland. Elian and his family are awaiting the decision of the US Appeals Court on the boy's immigration status 11 May. AFP PHOTO/POOL (Photo credit should read LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images)
368517 11: (Magazines Out - Florida Out) Thousands Of Protesters Pack A Street In Little Havana Carrying Flags And Signs During An Organized March April 29, 2000 In Miami. Many Cuban-Americans Protested The Raid In Which Armed Federal Agents Took 6-Year-Old Elian Gonzalez From His Relatives' Home. (Photo By Miami Herald/Getty Images)
A man waves a Cuban flag (L) before closed businesses in the Little Havana district of Miami 25 April 2000. Cuban-American groups have called for a work stoppage in an effort to peacefully protest the raid where federal agents forcefully took young Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez into custody. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/ROBERTO SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 25: Used car dealer is one of many businesses that is closed for a one day work stoppage in the Cuban Community in Miami to protest the taking of Elian Gonzalez by the INS during a pre-dawn raid on his relatives' home. (Photo by Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
A young girl places a flower on a chain link fence 23 April 2000 in front of the home where Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez stayed with relatives since he was rescued at sea in November of 1999. Elian was reunited with his father 22 April after INS federal agents stormed the house in a pre-dawn raid and forcibly took the boy into custody. Hundreds of Elian sympathizers have come to the home to place notes and flowers and to express their feeling about wanting the boy to stay in the United States. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO/ROBERTO SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
MIAMI, : Lazaro Hernandez (C) kneels 22 April 2000 in front of Miami police officers in riot gear near the home where Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez had been staying with relatives. Federal agents stormed the Gonzalez's home in Miami early 22 April 2000 and took the boy in their custody. AFP PHOTO ELECTRONIC IMAGE ROBERTO SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
368103 05: **ATTN EDITORS: CAPTION CORRECTION** (MAGAZINES OUT) U.S. President Bill Clinton responds to a reporters question April 22, 2000 at the White House regarding the removal of Elian Gonzalez from the house of his Miami relatives the previous night. Clinton supported the raid, saying the law has been upheld and the right thing had been done. The boy has reunited with his father at a Maryland air force base, and will remain in the U.S. until May 11, when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta decides whether or not he will get an asylum hearing. (Photo by Michael Smith/ Newsmakers)
N368103 16: (MAGAZINES OUT) Protesters hold banners as they demonstrate outside Andrews Airforce Base, April 22, 2000 in Camp Springs, MD. Elian Gonzalez was removed by government officials from his Miami relatives home early in the morning, to meet with his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez. (Photo by Alex Wong)
368105 02: (MAGAZINES OUT) Elian Gonzalez is held by his father Juan Miguel Gonzalez as 6-month-old half-brother, Hianny and stepmother Nercy look on during a reunion April 22, 2000 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. (Courtesy of Juan Miguel Gonzalez via Newsmakers)
Cuban rafter Elian Gonzalez plays in yard of his great-uncle home 21 April 2000, in the Little Havana section of Miami, FL. US President Clinton has stated that it is time to reunite the boy with his father. (ELECTRONIC IMAGE) AFP PHOTO Robert SULLIVAN (Photo credit should read ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP/Getty Images)
N368031 02: (FLORIDA OUT, MAGAZINES OUT) Felix Meana, left, a cousin of Elian Gonzalez, holds on to Elian April 20, 2000 in front of their Miami residence. (Photo by Hector Gabino/Miami Herald)
N368044 02: (MAGAZINES OUT) Elian Gonzalez makes an obscene gesture with his finger after getting angry during a kickball game, April 20, 2000 in Miami. He was playing with family and friends in the yard of the home where he is staying in Miami's Little Havana district. (Photo by Joe Raedle)
N368044 05: (MAGAZINES OUT) Elian Gonzalez, 6, celebrates during a kickball game, April 20, 2000 in Miami. He was playing with family and friends in the yard of his relatives'' home where he is staying in Miami's Little Havana district. (Photo by Joe Raedle)