U.S. set to block a Cuban exodus

August 07, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- Top federal officials sharpened a confidential plan to blockade the Florida Straits, and Miami police mapped contingency preparations yesterday in response to President Fidel Castro's threat to unlock Cuba's immigration gates for the first time in 14 years.

At every level, authorities expressed strong determination to prevent a repeat of the chaos that surrounded the Mariel boatlift, which carried 125,266 Cuban refugees to South Florida during five turbulent months of 1980.

"We will not allow another Mariel boatlift to happen," Miami City Manager Cesar Odio said. There were no signs yesterday that it would, but everyone remained on high alert.

In Havana, a heavy police presence was obvious and an uneasy calm prevailed one day after running street clashes, sporadic rock throwing and other bold acts of defiance hit downtown Havana.

Scattered incidents erupted again before dawn yesterday, but troops and government sympathizers later staged pro-Castro demonstrations.

No unrest was reported as darkness settled over the city last night. But large crowds were expected in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion today for the funeral of one of the two police officers killed Thursday when hijackers commandeered a ferry for passage to Florida.

Mr. Castro traveled yesterday to Colombia for today's inauguration of President Ernesto Samper, suggesting a sense of security with the Cuban political climate.

Attorney General Janet Reno and other administration officials attended a White House meeting led by Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, deputy national security adviser.

They considered how to respond to developments in Cuba and reviewed a response plan under development by the federal government for the past 13 years.

Called Operation Distant Shore, the classified emergency plan lists duties for 40 federal agencies to respond to a Mariel-like crisis. It includes a blockade by U.S. warships between Key West and Cuba, and the arrest of any refugee trying to enter the United States through that route.

The plan was not activated yesterday, and no warships were on the move. A State Department official said vigilance -- not action -- was the order of the day. For now.

"We have no interest in overreacting," said the official, who requested anonymity.

The Coast Guard said it picked up 68 people on three boats and five rafts yesterday. So far this year, nearly 5,000 Cubans have made it to Florida -- 173 in the first four days of August, the Coast Guard said.

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