MIAMI -- As the relatives of Elian Gonzalez continued to defy immigration officials, and politicians here seemed to side with them against the federal government, President Fidel Castro of Cuba announced last night that the boy's father was preparing to come to the United States to reclaim him.
Speaking on Cuban television, Castro said Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez "is ready to immediately" go to Florida if the United States government committed itself to turning the boy over to him.
But adding to the confusion of the day, a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Elian's father had not yet asked for a visa. The official also characterized Castro's speech as "odd."
While immigration officials had expected the father to make a visa request and to come to the United States to pick up his son if the courts found in his favor, the official said, "the rest of this caught us by surprise."
Immigration officials were apparently unable to reach an agreement with Gonzalez on last night, saying that they would reconvene this morning. Earlier, immigration officials had said they would officially begin arranging Elian's trip back to Cuba if there had been no agreement by 9 a.m. today. They have now extended the deadline for 24 hours.
The day's events concluded with thousands of demonstrators forming a human cross at an intersection, holding candles and flashlights aloft and chanting a prayer in unison: "Elian no se va. Lo dijo su mama." (Elian is not leaving. His mother said so.)
The Cuban president's remarks came after warnings from local authorities in South Florida that Miami could erupt in violence if federal agents tried to forcibly take the boy from his great-uncle's house in Little Havana and send him back to Cuba.
"We will not lend our respective resources, whether they be in the form of police officers or any other resources, to assist the federal government in any way, shape or form to inappropriately repatriate Elian Gonzalez to Cuba," said Alex Penelas, mayor of Miami-Dade County.
As of yesterday evening, Lazaro Gonzalez, the boy's great-uncle and temporary guardian, still had not signed an agreement to hand the child over to immigration officials if the Miami relatives lose a fight to keep him when the case is heard in May in the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals.
"I won't cooperate in anything," Gonzalez told a Spanish-language television station. "The boy lives in my house, and they'll have to go find him there."
As pressure built in this city, the home of a large number of Cuban exiles, officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service said they did not plan to remove Elian this morning, even if his Miami relatives continued to defy them. But an INS spokeswoman said the agency would revoke Elian's permission to stay in the United States, clearing the way for his return to Cuba.
In his comments in Havana, Castro said that Elian's father would be accompanied by other family members from Cuba, some of the boy's former classmates and teachers, and psychiatric experts.
"We have the perfect formula for reinserting Elian," Castro said. He also said that the group would be willing to wait as long as it takes to bring the boy back.
Luis Fernandez, a spokesman for the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, said Cuban officials and State Department officials will meet today to discuss arrangements for such a trip.
Asked to comment on Castro's announcement, a Justice Department spokesman said, "Certainly it changes things. How it changes things is a little hard to say at this point. If the father shows up in Miami and decides to go and ring the doorbell of his relatives and find his son, well the family in Miami is on record as saying they would turn over Elian to him. Whether they actually do this remains to be seen."
Gregory B. Craig, a lawyer for Elian's father, said:
"It has always been clear that Juan Miguel Gonzalez would come to the United States if he were assured that by coming he could take custody of his son. I think all that has happened tonight is that the president of Cuba has said that there is no Cuban government impediment to him coming and remaining here as long as it takes to exhaust the appeals, if by coming he can take custody of Elian.
"Juan Miguel will come here, his absence is not an issue, he will come here to the U.S., if by coming he is given custody of Elian."
But, he added, "there are two other players in that. The relatives in Miami have said they won't release Elian. And the INS and the government of the United States have not said, `Yes, that if you come, we will arrange for you to have Elian's custody.' Those two hurdles have not yet been overcome. The conversations that are going on right now in Miami hold the key."