Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy thrust into the center of an international custody battle six years ago, celebrated his 12th birthday Tuesday listening to a speech by President Fidel Castro.

Gonzalez, wearing his school uniform, sat next to Castro at the political event recalling the island's successful campaign to gain custody of the boy from the United States. The speech occurred in the coastal city of Cardenas, where Elian lives with his father, stepmother and younger half siblings.

Castro told the crowd he was proud of Elian, saying the boy had become "a leader" at his school as well as a karate devotee in the central city some 85 miles east of Havana.

The Cuban leader then devoted much of his two-hour speech to his current anti-corruption campaign. Children in the crowd shouted "Fidel, Fidel," before and after Castro spoke.

Elian gained international attention at age 5 after Florida fishermen found him clinging to an inner tube in the ocean. His mother had perished after their boat, filled with a dozen would-be migrants, capsized in a storm in November 1999.

Elian was one of three survivors.

A high-profile custody battle between Elian's relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba ensued. Beginning in December 1999, hundreds of thousands of Cubans took to the streets in a government-led campaign to demand Elian's return to the island.

The battle ended with Elian's dramatic seizure by armed U.S. federal agents from the home of his Miami relatives on April 22. The boy returned to Cuba the summer of 2000.