World

Elián González, onetime political football, now a college grad in Cuba

  • Cuban Elian Gonzalez (center), the only survivor of an immigrant shipwreck in 1999 when his mother left Cuba in a small boat bound for the United States as was at the center of a tug of war symbolizing tense ties between the two countries, poses with members of the so-called "Cuban Five" intelligence agents Fernando Gonzalez (L) and Antonio Guerrero at the mausoleum of national hero Jose Marti at Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, on July 24, 2015. (Photo: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

    Cuban Elian Gonzalez (center), the only survivor of an immigrant shipwreck in 1999 when his mother left Cuba in a small boat bound for the United States as was at the center of a tug of war symbolizing tense ties between the two countries, poses with members of the so-called "Cuban Five" intelligence agents Fernando Gonzalez (L) and Antonio Guerrero at the mausoleum of national hero Jose Marti at Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, on July 24, 2015. (Photo: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)  (This content is subject to copyright.)

The terrified 5-year-old boy in one of the most iconic news photographs of the 20th century – one showing a heavily-armed U.S. federal agent attempting to grab the child out of the arms of a family friend – is now a college graduate.

Elían González, the young Cuban at the center of a tense 2000 international custody battle that became a cause celebre and raised tensions on both sides of the Florida Straits, received his diploma in industrial engineering from the University of Matanzas, according to Cuban government website Cubadebate.  

Cubadebate said Friday that the now 22-year-old González read a letter from his class to former President Fidel Castro at the graduation ceremony in which the newly minted graduates vowed "to fight from whatever trench the revolution demands."

The ceremony was dedicated to Castro's 90th birthday as well as 40 years of higher education in Cuba.

The website of the local newspaper Girón published a photograph of González with a full, but well-trimmed beard.

González was 5 years old when he and his mother left Cuba in late 1999 along with others on a boat that eventually sank, killing most of its occupants.

The boy was rescued and brought to the United States, and a bitter custody fight broke out between his relatives there and his father in Cuba. The Castro government organized massive marches to demand his return.

Protests were also held in the United States calling for González to remain, and the issue became a political football during the campaign for the 2000 presidential election.

After a lengthy court battle, U.S. authorities ruled that González belonged with his father, who flew to the United States and returned to the island with his son in June 2000.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.