Cuban President Fidel Castro (search) said in a speech published Friday that he's honored to be a friend of Elian Gonzalez (search), the boy at the center of an international custody dispute five years ago.

"I have the privilege to be his friend," Castro said Thursday night during Elian's sixth-grade graduation in the coastal city of Cardenas, east of Havana.

The speech was broadcast on state television and published Friday in the Communist Party daily Granma (search).

Elian, now 11, was the subject of a high-profile legal and ideological battle between his father in Cuba and family members in South Florida, both who claimed custody.

Elian was taken to his relatives in Miami in November 1999 after he was found clinging to an inner tube in the waters off Florida. He was among three people who survived when their boat bound from Cuba to the United States sank.

Elian's mother was among those who perished.

After a seven-month battle, Elian returned with his father to Cuba in June 2000.