Juan Miguel Gonzalez left Cuba for the United States early Thursday on a journey that raises the possibility he will regain temporary custody of his son, Elian, more than four months after the 6-year-old boy's rescue off the Florida coast set off an international tug-of-war over whether he should return to his communist homeland.
The father left Havana before dawn Thursday in a private jet and was due to arrive around 7 a.m. (1100 GMT) at Washington Dulles International Airport with his wife and 6-month-old son.
The trip was worked out by Gregory Craig, a lawyer for the senior Gonzalez, during a 24-hour visit to Cuba. Craig said Wednesday night that a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service statement on Monday had made the trip possible.
Gonzalez had said he would be willing to travel to the United States, but only if he could be assured that he would be able to take temporary custody of the boy from an uncle in Miami, Lazaro Gonzalez.
The statement, as read by Craig outside his downtown Washington law office, said, "Once Mr. Gonzalez arrives (in the United States), the INS will begin transferring the parole care from Lazaro Gonzalez to the boy's father."
The elder Gonzalez is scheduled to stay in Bethesda, Maryland, at the modest two-story brick home of Fernando Remirez, head of the Cuban diplomatic mission to the United States.
Since Tuesday, Montgomery County, Maryland, police cars have been stationed at the ends of the street where the Remirez home is located. Police planned to set up a designated demonstration area about 30 meters (100 feet) away from the house on an adjacent street.
Agreement on a peaceful transfer of the boy to his father may not be easy. Two days of such efforts earlier this week involving lawyers for the government and Elian's Miami relatives did not bear fruit. A new round of talks was set for Thursday.
Cuban-American protesters have threatened to form a human chain around the Miami home where Elian is staying to prevent him from being sent back to Cuba.
INS spokeswoman Maria Cardona welcomed the news that Elian's father was coming to the United States but said it did not mean the boy would be immediately reunited with him.
"We are still working out the most appropriate manner in which to proceed with the actual transfer," she said late Wednesday. "This is an issue that we will be addressing with the family tomorrow."
Elian's uncle Lazaro Gonzalez said in Miami that he and his family were willing to meet with Elian's father at their home, but nowhere else.
"We aren't going to take the boy anywhere," he said Wednesday night.
In Havana, President Fidel Castro declared that it was just matter of days before Elian would be reunited with his father.
"I am talking about three days" more or less, Castro told hundreds of university students from across Latin American and the Caribbean in town for a regional congress. "It is inevitable."
White House spokesman Jake Siewert said only, "We believe that the father's travel to the United States could contribute to a successful resolution of this matter."
Elian's mother died along with 10 others when their boat sank during a crossing from Cuba to the Florida in late November. Castro has attempted to gain maximum political advantage from the fight over the boy - and even the leading U.S. presidential candidates have been drawn into the fray over an issue of that could impact the Cuban-American vote in the November election.
Even if the father regains temporary custody of the son in the next few days, he will not be able to claim victory.
Elian's Miami relatives have asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to overturn a federal judge's ruling in late March affirming the INS decision to return Elian to his father.
Outside the home of Elian's Miami relatives, word of Juan Miguel Gonzalez's imminent trip to Washington filtered through a crowd of more than 150 people clustered behind police barricades.
"Tomorrow is a crucial day. We must prepare," demonstrator Gerardo Barrios shouted into a bullhorn.
Afterward, another man read a prayer to supporters gathered in a circle under the white glow of TV lights. "Protect this boy, Lord," they sang in Spanish. But Elian was not inside; he had departed earlier to visit a cousin.