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Weather Slows Flow of Cuban Rafters With PM-US-Cuba, Bjt; PM-Cuban Refugees-Rescue, Bjt

August 26, 1994

Weather Slows Flow of Cuban Rafters With PM-US-Cuba, Bjt; PM-Cuban Refugees-Rescue, Bjt Photos HAV108-109

HAVANA (AP) _ Rain squalls, wind gusts and choppy seas today kept Cubans on rickety homemade rafts close to shore. But the respite in the flow of refugees trying to paddle to Florida looked to be brief.

Esteban Moreno said he and three friends turned back after setting out Thursday evening.

″We came back because of bad weather,″ said Moreno, 28. ″But as soon as conditions improve we’ll leave again.″

After days of bright sunshine and calm seas, gray clouds rolled in Thursday with heavy rains, lightning and thunder. Winds whipped the Caribbean into whitecapped waves twice as high as earlier in the day.

The Coast Guard picked up 1,670 rafters Thursday, down about 1,000 from previous days. Only 17 Cuban refugees were picked up between midnight and dawn today.

Moreno had company. On Cojimar beach outside Havana, Coral Benitez, 20, recounted reluctantly turning back.

″We don’t want to keep living here,″ she said of her husband and 5-year- old son. ″We earn nothing and that’s not going to change.″

The refugee surge began earlier this month when President Fidel Castro stopped arresting those leaving Cuba illegally. In a televised address to Cuba’s people Wednesday night, Castro said the door still is open.

″We told our border guards to make their operations more flexible in respect to illegal exits,″ Castro said.

Jose Luis Contreras, 58, a former industrial mechanic at the Che Guevara Nickel Plant, said he had been at Cojimar since Sunday trying to find someone who will take him on a raft out of Cuba.

Asked what he thought of Castro’s 2-hour speech, he said Cuba had ″the most cynical and lying government the world.″

Late Thursday evening eight rafts could be seen pulled back from the water waiting for the weather to clear. Stiff winds up to 25 mph, 7-foot waves and thunderstorms were expected into Saturday, with calmer seas predicted late in the day.

″We’ll wait. We’re not crazy,″ said Luis Lazaro, a 28-year-old electrician among those waiting at Cojimar Beach. He sat beside two rafts he hoped would carry him and eight friends to Florida 90 miles away.

A grim reminder of the risks - apparently pieces of a broken raft or bodies - bobbed a half-mile offshore.

″People should be out of the Florida Straits late Friday or Saturday,″ said Jim Lushine, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Miami. ″When the wind hits the Gulf Stream, it will blow up waves up to 15 feet.″

Cuban radio also urged rafters not to attempt the journey in the bad weather. State-run Radio Reloj urged people ″wanting to leave the country″ to wait for the storm to pass.

Any respite in the refugee exodus that is straining relations between the two countries looked to be brief. The driving issues are hunger and unemployment, and Cuba’s economy will be just as flat when the sun reappears.

Castro blamed the refugee problem on the U.S. government, which he said has encouraged illegal immigration for years by limiting legal visas to a trickle while welcoming illegal arrivals.

Clinton changed that policy Aug. 19, saying Cubans arriving by boat would no longer be welcome. The Pentagon announced Thursday it was expanding facilities at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, naval base to hold up to 60,000 refugees.

Castro also blamed the three-decade-old U.S. trade embargo, which has undermined Cuba’s never-robust economy.

″No one can blame us ... for this situation,″ the famously long-winded leader said in his address. ″The government of Cuba is the first to lament the lives that have been lost″ at sea.

He even invited Americans to bring boats to pick up family members and buy fuel in energy-short Cuba. But the Clinton administration has threatened to confiscate any U.S. boats that carry people out of Cuba.

U.S. officials retorted that Cuba’s economic woes are of Castro’s own making. They also rejected his call for talks on refugees, the embargo and other issues.

In Cuba, those who want to flee and those who would stay criticized both governments.

″It’s like two giants fighting, Cuba and the United States,″ said Salvador Ramos, a one-legged man sitting near a plaza in colonial old Havana. ″It’s people who lose, those poor rafters.″

At Cojimar Beach, Lazaro said: ″It’s crazy politics. What do they want, people to die?″

The drama has not transfixed the 11 million people on this island. Most seem aware of it, but it is accepted as much with resignation as with indignation.

This is partly due to the state-controlled media. But economic problems are a bigger distraction.

Many Cubans do not know where their next meal will come from or how they will get from one place to another without a car or being able to afford a taxi.

″This morning I had a piece of bread for breakfast,″ said Antonio Perez Fernandez, a 45-year-old watchman at a construction site. ″At 6 p.m. I will go home and see what’s there. Probably nothing.″

For all Cuba’s problems, there is no sense that opposition to Castro is building, or that his position at the top after 34 years is shaky.

Cubans seem weary, not fired up.

Conversations with Cubans in different neighborhoods of the capital found few bothered to watch Castro on TV even though he timed his talk immediately after a widely watched Brazilian soap opera, ″Felicidades″ (Happiness).

″I didn’t listen to him. I can’t waste the time,″ said Almaira Hernandez, a 27-year-old housewife who said she shut off her TV set after the soap opera.

On Thursday, the Mexican foreign ministry said Mexico will accept some of the refugees if they have relatives there.

In an interview with Mexican TV, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said both Washington and Havana had been informed of Mexico’s offer.

The United States has asked all 13 nations of the Caribbean Community to take refugees now being sent to Guantanamo Bay. Panama and the Turks and Caicos Islands have indicated willingness to take some refugees.

Update hourly