Elian Gonzalez Gets 'Free Spirit Award' in Not-Free Cuba

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The Cuban American National Foundation Monday criticized USA Today founder Al Neuharth for traveling to Havana to present an award to Elian Gonzalez.

Neuharth, representing a group called the Freedom Forum, presented Elian with a "Free Spirit Award" in a Havana ceremony attended by the boy's family and a few Castro government officials.

"In the minds of people all around the world, Elian is a hero for one reason or another. Everybody in the United States loves you," Neuharth told the boy.

The Freedom Forum bills itself as a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press and free speech. It presents the award annually, along with $1 million.

Neuharth said in Elian's case, the money could not be awarded because of the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. The money will go to help needy refugee children living in the United States, according to Neuharth.

Officials said Elian's award was actually announced in 2000, but could not be presented until now because the U.S. government delayed granting a license to the Freedom Forum for the trip.

The Cuban-American National Foundation was not happy with the presentation, according to its executive director Dennis Hays.

"You would think that Mr. Neuharth, whose publications are banned from being freely distributed in Cuba, would know the difference between a totalitarian state and a democracy. To take advantage of this young boy's misery is unconscionable," said Hays in an interview with CNSNews.com .

Elian's Miami relatives had no reaction, according to spokesman Armando Gutierrez.

Elian was rescued off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day in 1999 after his mother and other passengers died on a raft trying to reach the United States from Cuba.

He became the subject of a tug of war between the United States and Cuba during the Clinton administration. His relatives in Miami, who were taking care of him, battled his father, who wanted Elian to return to Cuba.

The boy was ultimately taken by armed federal agents during an Easter weekend raid in April 2000. He later returned to Cuba to live with his father, after the custody battle went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Elian now lives in Cardenas with his natural father. He turned eight years old in December.

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