Cubans rush to beat government deadline

September 11, 1994|By New York Times News Service

LAS BRISAS, Cuba -- The tide of people fleeing Cuba surged again yesterday as hundreds rushed to beat a 72-hour deadline set by the government after its agreement with the United States to halt the exodus.

Cuban coast guard officers in green fatigues patrolled the shore on foot but seemed to be making little effort to block the motley procession of homemade vessels into the sea.

Though the government an- nounced that it would begin at noon yesterday to urge people not to leave, many of those on the beach said they were told by the coast guard that they would have until midday Tuesday to shove off.

After that, the authorities said, they will stop the rafts by force if necessary. "Nonetheless," the government said in a statement published yesterday by the Communist Party newspaper Granma, "persuasion will always be the fundamental method employed."

In Washington, State Department officials reacted cautiously to Cuba's gradual approach to enforcing the accord, which was signed in New York on Friday after eight days of negotiation.

"The agreement started yesterday," said the chief U.S. negotiator, Michael Skol, the principal deputy assistant secretary state for Inter-American Affairs. "We expect that actions will take place right away. We are going to have to judge this based on actual numbers of people who are picked up."

Throughout much of the afternoon and evening Friday, rain, wind and choppy seas appeared to limit the departure of rafts and their rescue by U.S. Coast Guard ships waiting at the edge of international waters.

After 610 Cubans were picked up by the Coast Guard on Thursday, only 177 were rescued Friday.

But by 10 p.m. yesterday, the day's total was 447, as scores of rafts that left after the agreement was announced to television and radio here floated beyond the 12-mile limit of Cuban waters.

U.S. officials emphasized Friday that would-be immigrants detained at U.S. military bases in Panama and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, would have to return home to apply for entry into the United States.

Still, it seemed to remain an article of faith along the shores east of Havana that being picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to Guantanamo would mean some sort of priority on the list of people seeking to immigrate.

"The people who are going to get in are the ones who get to Guantanamo," said Guillermo Vega, 30, an automobile mechanic who was preparing to leave from Las Brisas aboard a rickety platform floated by some empty oil drums and festooned with a banner calling it "The Miraculous One."

"The people who stay are going to have to apply to God," he said.

Under the terms of the accord, the government of President Fidel Castro is obliged to "take effective measures in every way it possibly can to prevent unsafe departures, using mainly persuasive methods."

In the past, the Cuban authorities generally punished people trying to leave the island by raft with jail sentences or stiff fines.

But as it did briefly in 1965 and 1980, the government suddenly lifted the ban last month after the hijackings of several state-owned vessels and a riot against the security forces near the port of Havana on Aug. 5.

About 2,500 Cubans broke out their camps at Guantanamo yesterday to protest the new agreement, Defense Department officials said.

A crowd of refugees walked about a half-mile to the base's Navy Exchange and restaurant area about 1 p.m., but most began voluntarily returning to their camps by 2:30 p.m., the department said in a written statement.

Military security personnel dressed in riot gear and armed with fixed bayonets escorted the Cubans back, according to the statement. At least one refugee -- a 35-year-old man -- suffered a shoulder wound from a bayonet. He was listed in stable condition at the base's hospital.

Some diplomats and other observers have been skeptical that Cuban officials will be able to reimpose their control over the coastline easily after the flight of some 30,000 people since last -- month.

As he watched preparations for a half-dozen large rafts to put to sea yesterday morning, a uniformed Interior Ministry major at Las Brisas seemed somewhat uncertain about that himself.

zTC "Let's see how people behave," the officer, who did not give his name, said of the people seeking to leave Cuba.

In remarks Friday, Cuban officials suggested that they saw the importance of the agreement as much in the step that it might represent toward a normalization of Cuba's relations with the United States as in the framework that it created for limiting undocumented migration.

Reflecting that view yesterday, the government's statement said that Cuban compliance with the deal was "essential" to show the U.S. public "that we are a serious, disciplined and dignified country that knows how to and will comply with its commitments."

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