Coast Guard Returns Refugees to Cuba
MIAMI (AP) _ Over bitter protests from Cuban-Americans, the United States returned 13 Cuban boat people to their homeland Tuesday, the first refugees to be sent back under a new policy that ended 35 years of open arms.
``This is a day of infamy for the United States,″ said Francisco ``Pepe″ Hernandez, president of the politically powerful Cuban American National Foundation and a former Marine.
The Cuban men, ages 28 to 45, were picked up from two wooden boats by a passing cruise ship near the Cayman Islands last Thursday. The Coast Guard left them off at Bahia de Cabanas, a Cuban naval base about 40 miles from Havana.
The Clinton administration incensed Cuban exiles last week by announcing that refugee rafters would be returned instead of routinely admitted to the United States as they had been since Fidel Castro took power.
The U.S. policy was changed to head off an exodus of Cuban refugees to U.S. shores like the one that occurred last year.
Under a new visa process, a minimum of 20,000 Cubans a year can legally leave their country for the United States. They must apply in Cuba. Five U.S. diplomatic officers met the refugees in Cuba to explain the visa process.
The refugees, who arrived at the Cuban naval base wearing new shorts, T-shirts and sandals, were escorted by two Cuban officials onto a bus for a ride to a reception center near the Havana airport, according to a reporter who witnessed the event.
The State Department said Cuban authorities agreed to detain the refugees no longer than 24 hours to screen them for past criminal activity. But exiles in Miami feared a future of persecution and isolation.
``Tonight, they all will be in their houses,″ U.S. Interests Section spokeswoman Catherine Moses told Notimex, a Mexican news agency.
The mother of two of the men had asked President Clinton for a reprieve, saying her sons faced imprisonment and loss of their homes and ration cards.
``Their only `crime,′ as young men that they are, has been to dream of life in freedom,″ wrote Miriam Malpica, who lives in the Miami area. ``Take pity on my pain, be generous once more with those who suffer.″
Cuban-born Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said, ``Castro has clearly won with this latest battle.″
Another Cuban-born politician, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., was arrested during a protest outside the White House on Tuesday.
``An agreement with Castro to punish innocent refugees ... is unconscionable, morally repugnant and must be systematically denounced and condemned,″ Diaz-Balart said in a statement.
But Andres Gomez, head of the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a moderate Cuban exile group, said a policy change was needed because the U.S. trade embargo has failed to bring down Castro.
``The policy of the United States has to protect the interests of the United States and not the interests of a small community within the United States,″ he said.
In Miami, a lunch-hour protest on the steps of the Dade County courthouse was punctuated by anti-Clinton and anti-Castro speeches, honking car horns, Cuban flag-waving and singing of the Cuban national anthem.
``Clinton sends these refugees to the same government that has been condemned by the international community,″ said Arturo Cobo, who ran a refuge for rafters in Key West during the height of last summer’s exodus of more than 32,000 Cuban refugees. ``This is immoral, and we don’t accept that.″