CARDENAS, Cuba — Fidel Castro took turns on the stage with clowns and a children's drama troupe Wednesday as Cuba celebrated the seventh birthday of Elian Gonzalez, the castaway whose custody battle ended with a victory by the communist president over his enemies in Miami.

"Fidel! Fidel!" scores of boys and girls in white shirts and blue or red Communist Pioneer neckerchiefs squealed as the Cuban leader showed up with his security guards for the festivities in the outdoor patio of the school where Elian attends the second grade.

"All of us must work to ensure that this boy is a symbol . . . for all the children in the world," Castro told the group of about 1,000 people gathered for the event. Elian must be "a model student, an example. . . . so that people will remember him all their lives," he said.

Recalling Elian's birthday celebration in the same patio last year, when the boy was in the United States, Castro noted "a great difference" between the two Dec. 6 celebrations.

"It was a sad day," the Cuban leader said of Elian's birthday last year. "There was an empty desk." There was "a great sadness in his school, in his family, in the nation."

"We never lost hope, we always knew that our little friend was going to return," he said.

"Happy birthday, Elian!" Cuba's official radio stations repeated in messages during Wednesday morning broadcasts. The afternoon birthday party in Cardenas, a two-hour drive east of Havana, was broadcast live by state television and radio across the Caribbean island.

Castro sat in the front of rows of chairs arranged for a show by clowns with multicolored wigs, boys and girls singing folk songs. A children's drama troupe in costumes wheeled out a huge cake with light blue frosting with white trim.

On Castro's right sat Elian's father, Juan Miguel, who traveled to the United States to retrieve his son. On the elder Gonzalez's lap sat Elian's little half-brother, a toddler who pattered around the stage later as Castro spoke.

Elian stood behind cake as the schoolchildren first sang a traditional Cuban birthday song, then a tune entitled "For an Elfin Prince," which was made popular during communist Cuba's battle to bring the boy back to his homeland.

Castro's presence underscored the great importance his government placed on the Elian's birthday. Schoolchildren across the nation held similar birthday celebrations in Elian's honor.

Elian's father gave thanks to Castro, and to the American people who backed him, for their support of his fight to bring his boy home.

"Today we have our son with us . . . a Cuban boy just like any other child in Cuba," Gonzalez said.

State media on Tuesday night for the first time released video of a July meeting between Castro and Elian, and the government has granted national and foreign media unusual access to cover the festivities — albeit from a distance.

In the video, shot two weeks after Elian's return, the Cuban leader stretched out his long arm to greet the boy, who put out his own small hand. Castro joked and talked softly to Elian, assuring him that he was a friend of his father and grandparents. At one point, he kissed him on the head.

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the American minister who played a central role in the fight by Elian's father for the child's repatriation, attended the boy's birthday party in Cardenas. Campbell said earlier she would bring Elian a new camera and film for his birthday.

"It is a wonderful day," Brown Campbell later told the gathering. "We were not always sure that Elian would be back where he belonged. But Elian was a very brave little boy, and Juan Miguel an extraordinary father."

"You have many, many people in the United States . . . who wish you a happy birthday, Elian," she said, directly addressing the boy. "You are back where you belong and we are very grateful."

To Elian's relatives in Cardenas, she said: "I want to thank you for the opportunity of this wonderful family. This is a very loving family and Elian is a very lucky little boy."

On Elian's birthday last year, while the little boy was still with his Miami relatives, Castro traveled to Cardenas to join Elian's classmates in cutting a cake.

On that day back in Miami, dozens of American children in school uniforms and Santa Claus caps brought Elian gifts and sang Christmas carols in English and Spanish.