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Cubans Evicted From Mexican Embassy

March 2, 2002

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HAVANA (AP) _ Cuban police in black berets entered the Mexican embassy early Friday and detained 21 young men who had crashed a stolen bus through the gates two days earlier and asked to be taken out of Cuba.

The unarmed, specially trained police took action after Mexico asked Cuba to remove the men. The detainees, who authorities in both countries said were seized without putting up any resistance, were rushed away in trucks during the pre-dawn hours.

While human rights activists expressed concerns about their fate, Mexican authorities said they believed the men had no grounds to fear political persecution and there was no risk to their lives. Mexico said the men did not ask for political asylum and wanted to emigrate for purely economic reasons.

``These are young people facing a difficult economic situation, like many in Latin America,″ said Gloria Abella of Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department.

After commandeering a public bus, the men crashed the embassy gates late Wednesday night. Their forced evacuation about 30 hours later sent a strong message across the island: holing up in a diplomatic mission is not a sure ticket off the island.

``The government of Mexico is not going to provide preferential treatment simply because they have invaded the embassy,″ Mexican Ambassador Ricardo Pascoe Pierce said Friday in an interview with Radio Formato in Mexico City.

That statement was sure to please Cuban officials, who have tried to combat the tendency in some quarters to view all Cubans wanting to leave the island as politically persecuted.

That tendency has waned in recent years with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

Under a Cuba-U.S. migration pact, for instance, the U.S. Coast Guard now repatriates most Cubans it picks up at sea rather than automatically transporting them to the United States where they can apply for permanent residency. Other countries have also grown less likely to grant political asylum.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the evicted Cubans ``must be treated justly, transparently, without reprisals and in accordance with international humanitarian standards.″

He said the United States and other countries will monitor closely to ``make sure the Cubans handle this in a manner that’s consistent with Mexico’s commitments to human rights observance as well as our own.″

In Miami, about 50 people protested the eviction Friday outside the Mexican Cultural Institute.

``It is very sad that the Mexican government has given in to what appears to have been pressure from Fidel Castro, but I don’t fault the Mexican government,″ said Rosalia Cuevas, 39, who came to Miami from Mexico 14 years ago.

``I feel that as a free Cuban it is my duty to let Mexico know that we’re unhappy about this situation,″ said Alva Suarez, 45.

Pascoe said the decision to evict the men was made after they rejected requests by Mexican Foreign Relations Undersecretary Gustavo Iruegas to leave and after Mexico learned that at least 13 of the 21 had criminal records.

Those 13 had been arrested for or convicted of crimes including robbery, assault and theft, with some of those cases still pending in the courts, the Cuban government said.

``None of them is really motivated by ideas or objectives of a political character,″ a Cuban government statement said.

``Soon it will be said that the people caught up in the adventure of Wednesday night are dissidents and prisoners of conscience, but that won’t stop us from unmasking them from head to toe,″ the Cuban statement said.

Mexican President Vicente Fox sent Iruegas to Havana on Thursday to resolve the standoff. Fox also spoke by telephone with Cuban President Fidel Castro about the situation, authorities said.

Mexico said it would not press charges.

``Taking into account that the assailants were led and manipulated, the government of Mexico asked Cuban authorities to consider humanitarian factors in the treatment of the cases,″ said the Mexican statement, which contained much of the same language as the Cuban one.

Cuban prosecutors, however, can still file criminal charges against the men.

Activist Elizardo Sanchez of the non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation wrote Pascoe on Friday morning asking to meet with Iruegas about ``the immediate future″ of the men and their rights to due process.

The streets around the Mexican Embassy remained closed off Friday afternoon and scores of police officers patrolled the area. There were also several dozen burly civilians who appeared to be members of the pro-government construction brigade often called to back the police.

In other neighborhoods, people lined up to buy the Communist Party daily Granma, which had a front-page article featuring the government communique about the standoff.

The standoff followed U.S. news reports quoting Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda as saying ``the doors of the embassy of Mexico on the island are open to all Cuban citizens.″ The statement, made during a visit to Miami this week, was repeatedly broadcast in Cuba by U.S.-based Radio Marti.

Castaneda said Thursday that his words were taken out of context by ``radicals″ in Miami.

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