Elian Gonzalez celebrates 8th birthday, two years after start of custody battle

Thursday, December 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who captured the hearts of two nations, marked his 8th birthday Thursday, two years after the fateful ocean voyage that sparked a tug of war between his relatives in Cuba and in the United States.

Cuba's official media commemorated the date, saying that Elian ``will happily celebrate in his homeland his eight years of life'' with a small party in his hometown of Cardenas, about 85 miles east of Havana.

A media tour of government recuperation efforts in the Cardenas region, which was hard hit by Hurricane Michelle in early November, was set for Thursday afternoon. It included a stop by Elian's school for a birthday celebration.

The government said Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's National Assembly, or parliament, would participate in the tour.

There was no official word on attendance by President Fidel Castro, who traveled to Cardenas for Elian's 7th birthday party. Castro also visited the town the year before, for a 6th birthday party held for Elian, who was then staying with his relatives in Miami.

Alarcon, long Castro's point man on Cuba-U.S. affairs, played a key role in this communist country's efforts to have Elian repatriated after the boy's Miami relatives refused to return him to his father in Cuba.

Elian was rescued off the Florida coast in November 1999 after his mother and most of the other passengers traveling illegally from Cuba to the United States died when their boat capsized.

The boy was temporarily placed with relatives in Miami who, backed by other Cuban exiles, launched an international custody battle to keep the child in the United States.

In response, Castro organized nearly daily rallies to demand that Elian be returned to Cuba and reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez.

Elian returned to Cuba on June 28, 2000, after a seven-month legal and political battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.