Elian Gets A Kiss From Castro

University of Vermont student Michelle Gardner-Quinn, 21, of Arlington, Va., in an undated family photo. Gardner-Quinn went out Friday, Oct. 6, 2006, with a group of friends to several downtown Burlington, Vt., bars. She left the group at about 2 a.m. Saturday morning to walk back up the hill toward campus, but never made it back to her room. Her body was found a week later in a wooded area in Richmond, Vt.
AP/Burlington Free Press
Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban rescued off the coast of Florida who became the focus of a massive custody feud last year, made a rare public appearance Tuesday, exchanging an affectionate greeting with President Fidel Castro at a children's rally.

Seven-year-old Elian and his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, were in the front row with Castro and other senior leaders for a gala event at Havana's "anti-imperialist" square to wind up this week's congress of the children's pioneers movement."

Elian smiled as he walked into a Havana amphitheater with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, and his 2-year-old half-brother Hianny.

Castro, who embraced Gonzalez's fight for his son last year and made it a national cause that eventually captured the world's attention, sat in the same row and greeted Elian with a kiss after the performance wrapped up an hour later.

Wearing his traditional olive green uniform, the Cuban president spent a few more minutes greeting other children with kisses and pats on the head. Neither Castro's nor Elian's attendance was announced in advance.

The Cuban government organized hundreds of rallies, marches and other gatherings across the island over seven months last year to demand Elian's repatriation, insisting that he had been "kidnapped" by the Miami relatives fighting to keep him in the
United States.

Gonzalez returned with Elian to Cuba a year ago last month after winning a child custody battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Castro's government promised to protect the motherless boy's privacy after his return, and the child has rarely been seen in public since then.

Castro's foes had predicted the Cuban leader would parade Elian as a political trophy, but the boy has been kept out of the public limelight as he resumed normal school and family life in his coastal home town of Cardenas.

Before Tuesday, Elian had only been glimpsed twice this year by the media, around celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and meeting South African President Thabo Mbeki

Elian came to the world's attention when he was picked up in the sea off Florida on Thanksgiving Day in November 1999, clinging to an inner-tube after miraculously surviving the capsize of a boat full of would-be migrants from Cuba. His mother and 10 others drowned.

The resulting custody battle divided Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits, pitting the communist government against its ideological enemies in Miami's Cuban exile community.

Havana backed Gonzalez's argument for his right to custody as Elian's sole surviving parent.

Elian's Miami relatives and the anti-Castro exiles who backed them argued that Elian would have a better life and more opportunities off the communist island.

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