DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT -- A father on a mission, Juan Miguel Gonzalez arrived in Washington from Havana yesterday to reclaim his son, Elian, denouncing the Miami relatives who have cared for the boy for the past four months and are fighting to keep him in the United States.
"I am truly impatient to have him returned to me as soon as possible and go back to Cuba together immediately," Gonzalez said through an interpreter after landing at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, where he was met by a horde of media representatives and a sprinkling of protesters who called out his name and urged him to remain with Elian in the United States.
How soon he would see Elian, who remained in Miami in a house surrounded by protesters vowing to block his removal, was uncertain.Negotiations on how to hand Elian over to his father reportedly broke off yesterday because the Miami relatives feared Juan Miguel Gonzalez, upon gaining custody, would deed-return with the boy to Cuba.
As 120 federal police officers arrived in Miami to protect federal buildings and employees in the event of civil unrest, officials with the Justice Department prepared the documents they will send to the Miami relatives directing how Elian will be sent to his father.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez will meet with Attorney General Janet Reno at the Justice Department this morning.
"We strongly believe that Juan Miguel Gonzalez's presence here will move the process forward and will allow the parties to quickly effectuate a transfer of Elian to his father," Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder said.
"I think the bottom line is we want to get father and son physically reunited as fast as we can," he said. "I believe reuniting Elian with his father is not only a matter of federal law, it is not a matter of immigration law, it is simply the right thing to do."
Where such a reunion would take place presents a quandary. Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle, has said he wants the boy's father to come to his house in Miami and will not take the boy elsewhere.
Federal authorities want to avoid any confrontations in Miami, where a small but vocal segment of the exile community promises to body-block any attempt to remove the boy and return him to Cuba. About 300 people had gathered last evening at the home to protest Elian's removal.
"There may be other places where it's best to have this reunion occur," Holder said.
Elian, who occasionally emerged from his great-uncle's house to play in the yard yesterday, reportedly was told his father was in the United States. About 900 miles away, near Washington, his father was fighting to see him.
Standing on a windswept tarmac in a remote corner of Dulles early yesterday, Gonzalez read from a prepared statement as his wife, Nercy Carmenate Castillo, carried their 6-month-old son, Hianny, bundled in a hooded jacket and a blanket against the morning chill.
"This is Elian's true family," Gonzalez said, "and we love him very much."
He expressed hope that he would "be soon able to embrace my son -- for the first time in over four months" and decried what he called the "cruel psychological pressure" exerted by his Miami relatives on Elian.
The boy, floating in an inner tube, was rescued Thanksgiving Day off the Florida coast, a survivor of a boat capsizing that killed his mother and 10 others trying to flee Cuba.
"As if his mother's disappearance before his eyes and the miracle of his arrival have not inflicted enough damage on a 5-year-old boy, he has had to spend time under the temporary custody of some distant relatives who had never seen him before," Gonzalez said.
"It's been an agonizing experience to see my son submitted to cruel psychological pressures aimed at influencing his personality, already weakened by terrible trauma," he continued. "Worse still, Elian's been paraded and exhibited at public rallies and by the media with clear intent to obtain political advantage from this tragedy."
In Miami, Gonzalez's relatives said they were hurt by the remarks and believe Elian's father had been coached by the Cuban government on what to say.
Even as Juan Miguel Gonzalez's arrival signaled a new urgency to resolve the long-running battle, there may be no quick solution.
Lazaro Gonzalez has appealed a federal judge's ruling last month that affirmed the Immigration and Naturalization Service's ruling that Elian should return to his father in Cuba. Opening arguments are scheduled before the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on May 8.
Where Elian should live as the appeals process continues, and with whom, is a point of contention.
Justice Department officials said they hope Lazaro Gonzalez will voluntarily turn Elian over to his father. But if he doesn't, a letter could be sent informing him that his temporary care of Elian is being transferred to Juan Miguel Gonzalez, followed several days later by another letter with instructions on when and how to relinquish the boy.
Another possibility would be an order from the federal judge who upheld the INS decision that the boy belongs with his father that would compel the relatives to hand over the boy.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family arrived in a chartered Learjet shortly after 6: 30 a.m. yesterday and were met by his lawyer, Gregory Craig, who had traveled to Cuba earlier in the week to work out the details of the trip.
After spending a few minutes in a trailer parked near the jet, the party emerged for Gonzalez to read his statement. With him were Fernando Remirez, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and Joan Brown Campbell, until recently general secretary of the National Council of Churches and an early supporter of returning Elian to his father.
Short and stocky, the 31-year-old Gonzalez, who works as a cashier in the Varadero resort district of Cuba, was dressed in a dark blue suit and dotted tie. He delivered his strongly worded statement in an equally strong and determined voice.
Outlining his grievances over the long-running battle that has denied him custody of his son, Gonzalez concluded by expressing his "deepest gratitude to the American people who have been overwhelmingly in favor that my son be returned to me."
Several hours earlier, at the Havana airport, Gonzalez and his family were sent on their way by Cuban President Fidel Castro, who declared victory in the fight over the boy.
"The battle of Elian has been won -- in judicial terms, in legal terms, in political terms," Castro said Wednesday night.
Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family are staying in the Bethesda home of Remirez, who has moved out with his family to make room for the visitors. They were driven there from Dulles in a seven-car motorcade.
Police blocked traffic from the normally quiet street of neatly kept homes. Neighbors said the area is home to a number of federal officials, embassy personnel, journalists and lawyers -- a contrast, except for an even larger encampment of media, to the less monied Little Havana neighborhood in Miami where Elian is staying.
While some Bethesda residents grumbled about the television satellite trucks and police barricades, several said they looked forward to the beginning of the end of Elian's ordeal.
"I think this is very hard for the boy. On the one hand, you think the boy needs his freedom, but on the other hand, he also needs to be with his father," said Marie Adaktusson, who lives around the corner from Remirez.
"I feel badly for this little boy. He's just become a product of this whole thing, and it's a shame," said Elaine Sorcher. "That's his father, and he should be with his father, but I still feel that [Juan Miguel Gonzalez] can't express his own opinion in this matter."
She said she believes the Cuban government had prepared his remarks.
"The whole thing is controlled," she said, shaking her head.
A lawyer for Lazaro Gonzalez agreed.
"Those might have been his lips moving, but those were Fidel Castro's words," Roger Bernstein said in Miami.
Gonzalez's remarks did echo much of what has come out of Havana in recent days. He urged federal authorities to grant additional visas to Elian's classmates, teachers, doctors and others who comprised the delegation of some 30 people that Castro asked to send.
A half-dozen protesters at the airport held up signs and called out in Spanish to Gonzalez, who looked their way several times but did not respond. The group was made up of Cuban-American students at colleges in Washington, who said they wanted to welcome Gonzalez to a free country and urge him to raise Elian and his half-brother here.
"We understand his hardship. No Cuban can say their family has not been divided," said Sandy Acosta, 22, a graduate student at American University. "All our people have been divided for the same reason Elian's mother decided to leave Cuba -- because of a repressive system that violates human rights."
Reporter Lyle Denniston of The Sun's Washington Bureau and wire services contributed to this article.