(CNSNews.com) - "Juan Miguel, the fatherland thanks you," Cuban President Fidel Castro declared Wednesday, as he honored Elian's father for coming home - and thereby justifying Castro's trust in him.
"His conduct covered him in glory and won him forever the admiration of his people," said Castro in his first public speech since Elian and Juan Miguel returned home last week.
"On him depended the success or failure of our colossal effort," Castro said, explaining how he met with Juan Miguel to judge his character and his intentions, before the father was allowed to go to the United States to retrieve his son.
Said Castro, "The revolution's best move was to trust fully in Juan Miguel. The biggest error by the mafia [Cuban-Americans] and the empire [US government] was to believe Juan Miguel could be bribed and led to betrayal" - in other words, to defect.
As part of the ceremony honoring Juan Miguel, Castro called both father and son
"giant moral symbols of our fatherland."
He said their return to Cuba prompted "intense emotion" in him: "A small boy and a humble Cuban father, whom few people knew just a few months ago, were returning, transformed into giant moral symbols of our fatherland. At that moment, I thought how great is our people, how invincible a just idea."
During the ceremony, Castro awarded Juan Miguel Gonzalez one of the communist nation's highest honors, the Order of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a medal named after the 19th century founder of Cuba's movement for independence from Spain.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez stood next to Castro as he spoke, later thanking "all the Cuban people...especially our commander" for the honor bestowed on him.
"I have not done anything special," said Gonzalez. "What I have done, any father who feels love for his child, any Cuban who feels worthy of our revolution, of our socialism, would have done." His comments drew the cheering crowd to its feet.
The ceremony was broadcast live on Cuban television.
Ricardo Alarcon, the senior Cuban official who served as Gonzalez' personal adviser in the effort to bring Elian home, read an award citation praising Juan Miguel for his stoicism and for setting an example for Cuba's younger generation: "They are, and they will be like Juan Miguel," said Alarcon.
Elian's Miami relatives and many others- in the Cuban-American community find it hard to believe that Juan Miguel Gonzalez was anything other than a puppet for the Castro regime. They insist Elian's father returned to Cuba, not because he wanted to, but because he was afraid not to.