HAVANA (CBSNewYork/AP) — Elian Gonzalez, the center of an international custody battle waged by Fidel Castro nearly two decades ago, returned to the public eye Sunday to praise the leader who fought to return him to Cuba.

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Echoing the round-the-clock adulation on state media, Gonzalez said on government-run television that the Cuban leader’s legacy will long outlive him.

It’s “not right to talk about Fidel in the past tense …but rather that Fidel will be,” Gonzalez said. “Today more than ever, make him omnipresent.”

Gonzalez was five when he, his mother and others attempted a sea crossing between Cuba and the United States in 2000. His mother died on the voyage, but he survived and was taken to Florida. A bitter dispute broke out between his relatives in the U.S., who wanted him to stay there, and his father back home.

Cuban President Fidel Castro poses with shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez, after presiding over a massive May Day demonstration at Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion in May 2005. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)

Cuban President Fidel Castro poses with shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez, after presiding over a massive May Day demonstration at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion in May 2005. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)

Castro, who died Friday night at 90, made the issue a national cause and led huge demonstrations demanding Elian be returned to his father. U.S. authorities eventually sent him back.

“Fidel was a friend who at a difficult moment was with my family, with my father, and made it possible for me to return to my father, to return to Cuba,” Gonzalez said.

He spoke as workers spruced up the Cuban capital’s sprawling Revolution Plaza in preparation for two days of tributes.

Hundreds of thousands are expected to visit to pay their respects starting Monday in the shadow of Havana’s towering monument to independence hero Jose Marti and a huge sculpture of revolution leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

A mass public ceremony is planned at the square Tuesday, as CBS News’ Don Champion reported.

“It is a great sorrow. Everyone is feeling it,” said Orlando Alvarez, a jeweler who was fishing on the seaside Malecon boulevard in the morning. “Everyone will be there.”

Cuba’s government declared nine days of national mourning after Castro died and this normally vibrant city has been notably subdued. On Saturday night, the Malecon, Havana’s social center, was all but deserted, with dozens of people instead of the thousands who normally go to party there on weekends.

“I have never seen this square so quiet,” Spanish tourist Miguel Gonzalez said as he took pictures of Revolution Plaza.

An American tourist named Gabriel was in Cuba witnessing the moment in history.

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“One of the most important things that the revolution, you know, is teaching the Cuban people to help each other,” he said.

In the Tri-State area, there was some celebration in Union City, New Jersey — home to the second-largest Cuban community in the country, sometimes referred to as “Havana on the Hudson.”

Waves of the Cuban flag and hugs of home filled the streets following the death of the former Cuban president.

“I think most people aren’t celebrating his death per se, but the end of something that was horrific for a very, very long time,” Heather Hernandez said.

Crows of Cuban Americans were seen celebrating throughout the weekend in Miami as well.

“I saw the suffering when I was a small child, now I’m here,” Maylen Diaz, a Cuban-American, said. “I’m very hopeful for Cuba.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, was born in Cuba.

“Our community is very optimistic, and I think that their hopes and aspirations may soon be dashed by the reality of what Raul Castro represents will be setting down upon them,” she said.

Despite that, some younger Cuban-Americans in Miami hope Castro’s death will create opportunities for them to visit the island and finally connect with their culture.”

Yvonne Rodriguez’s parents are from Cuba.

“It could be maybe the start of some kind of a dissolution so that we can start visiting,” Rodriguez said. “We are extremely curious. We love the culture, and we fell in love with Cuba without even going there through our parents’ story.”

U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, said he believes Cubans are one step closer to achieving freedom following Castro’s death, and that it is the perfect time to assist human rights activists, political dissidents and independent journalists on the island to help spread ideas on what Cuba could be in the future, WCBS 880’s Kelly Waldron reported.

Castro’s remains will make a cross-country tour from Havana to Santiago, retracing in reverse the route Castro took when the revolution triumphed in 1959. His funeral will be held on Dec. 4.

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