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Bahamas Deports Cuban Ballplayers

May 20, 1998

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) _ Three Cuban baseball players took to sea last March, hoping to follow the path of star pitcher Orlando Hernandez to Bahamas and eventually to the major leagues in the United States.

Instead, they found the door to America that Hernandez took en route to a $6.6 million contract with the New York Yankees _ a path through Costa Rica _ slammed in their faces, due largely to a local scandal.

On Tuesday, they were back in Cuba, forcibly returned because no country would give them a visa. Another player, Jorge Luis Toca, was able to go to Japan because he has a Japanese wife.

``What can we have done? For this group it was their turn to lose,″ said Rogelio Ulibarri, who heads the Cuban exile group Colonia Cubana, based in San Jose.

``All originated in this tragic scandal. It’s so sad,″ he said.

Hernandez was one of thousands of Cuban immigrants in recent years who have used Costa Rica as a way station out of Cuba and on to other countries, generally the United States.

With a special visa granted by the government, Hernandez spent almost three months in Costa Rica before signing with the Yankees and coming to the United States.

At first, the three players _ Angel Lopez, 25; Jorge Diaz, 23; Michael Jova, 17 _ and pitching coach Orlando Chinea seemed certain to follow him.

Despite an uproar by other refugees about special treatment, Costa Rican foreign minister Fernando Naranjo said in March he saw no reason why the three should not receive the same sort of visa Hernandez did.

Then in April a scandal broke.

Costa Rican authorities announced they had broken a ring involving top government officials that improperly arranged visas _ sometimes for money _ for Cubans trying to flee the communist island. Some current and former officials were charged with crimes.

Amid the uproar, the government indefinitely suspended issuance of humanitarian visas.

Prosecutors claimed their investigation found humanitarian and cultural visas were being sold to Cubans for $5,000-$7,000 each, and that rings were arranging false marriages to Costa Ricans so that Cubans could get visas.

Humanitarian visas normally are free and are requested by government or church officials who act as sponsors for the immigrants.

On May 6, two days before then-President Jose Maria Figueres ended his term, the foreign ministry rejected the players’ petition for political asylum, arguing that they did not qualify, said Vilma Ibarra, the ministry spokeswoman.

The resolution signed by Figueres and Naranjo stated that the Cubans could only apply for the troubled humanitarian visas. But those by then had been suspended.

A Cuban-American agent trying to help the players visited Costa Rica last week and found encouragement, said his spokesman, Rene Guim.

``The irony of it all is that just last week, (Costa Rican officials) gave us tremendously positive reassurance that visas could be forthcoming for the ballplayers, and as many Cuban nationals as they could possibly assist, especially women and children,″ he said.

But officials in Costa Rica are painting a different picture.

``Immigration policy has been favoring only those who come from abroad and not those who live here. We are the owners of the country and we are obliged to protect it from undesirable visitors,″ Public Security Minister Juan Rafael Lizano told the newspaper La Nacion on Tuesday.

``We are going to issue visas very carefully from now on. And we will see how convenient is to start giving the humanitarian ones, which have allowed the entrance of so many foreigners.″

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