Flow of refugees halts as Cuba enforces accord

September 13, 1994|By Tim Golden | Tim Golden,New York Times News Service

COJIMAR, CUBA — .TC COJIMAR, Cuba -- The six-week flood of refugees that left about 30,000 Cubans in U.S. internment camps and an untold number dead at sea came to a virtual halt yesterday.

Heavy winds across the northern coast of this island conspired with the Cuban coast guard and police to hurry the last dozens of people leaving in makeshift rafts and to dissuade others who had been preparing to go.

Although the Cuban authorities had given people who were already on the shore until noon today to depart, security officers in several areas said that they had received new orders to move up the deadline by a day.

"That's all of it," said Pedro Perez Quintero, 39, looking at the finally empty shore in front of his home in this town that had been a main point of departure for people fleeing the country. "Everyone who was left out there took off this morning."

Three days after the United States and Cuba signed an agreement to try to halt the exodus, the circus atmosphere of the beaches moved to the streets around the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, where hundreds of Cubans came seeking one of the at least 20,000 immigrant visas that the United States has agreed to issue each year.

Early yesterday morning, a long line formed a few blocks from the mission after would-be emigrants took it upon themselves to make a list of those wanting visas. Later, Cuban police officials were nearly swallowed in the pushing and shoving that broke out when they tried to pass out fliers from the U.S. Information Service about the new accord.

"Please do not contact the Department of State, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or the United States Interests Section in Havana about migrating under this agreement," the one-page fliers said. "An announcement on how to apply will be made as soon as possible."

Inside the Interests Section, U.S. diplomats were scrambling yesterday to figure out just how the accord signed in New York on Friday would be implemented.

The mission's consular section, which has been staffed until now by only seven diplomats, has already been overwhelmed with the regular flow of Cubans asking to visit or join relatives in the United States. The agreement allows the mission to bring in as many new consular officers as are needed to process visas, but they can do nothing until immigration service officials in Washington set criteria for choosing most of the Cubans who will be accepted.

According to U.S. officials, the number is expected to include perhaps 5,000 political refugees, to be admitted if they can show that they have reason to fear persecution in Cuba. The remainder is expected to be made up of relatives of Cuban-Americans living in the United States, people able to claim humanitarian reasons for wanting to emigrate and possibly others.

The United States has also pledged to clear up a backlog of more than 19,000 Cubans who have already qualified to emigrate but are on long waiting lists for visas, along with citizens of other countries. Between 4,000 and 6,000 people on that list still hope to leave, diplomats here say. Both the Cubans taken from the waiting lists and others who enter as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens -- about 500 did so last year -- will be in addition to the promised 20,000.

"This is the only hope we have now," a 30-year-old factory worker, Caridad Fortun, said as she milled around near the Interests Section with her sister, Aisa, a 36-year-old housewife. They hope to join a brother who has lived in Miami since the last big exodus of Cubans to the United States, the 1980 boat lift that took more than 125,000 people from the port of Mariel.

After hundreds of people rushed to embark immediately after the accord was announced, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that its ships patrolling off the Cuban coast picked up 1,004 Cubans from rafts on Sunday, an increase from 551 on Saturday and 177 on Friday. Yesterday, the number fell sharply again, with only 230 people rescued by 6 p.m.

At Ricon de Guanabo, a beach about 25 miles east of Havana that was littered with the wrecks of several vessels that had not been able to overcome the strong currents leading into the Straits of Florida, Marta Santos, 44, sat on the rocks with a group of dejected friends after the small motor on their raft had failed and they had been pushed back to shore. Mrs. Santos said that she had been a housewife, but that couldn't call herself that anymore because she had sold her small house to buy materials for the raft.

Shortly after noon, an Interior Ministry officer on the beach told members of the group that they would not be allowed another try.

"There is bad weather coming in, and we cannot allow anyone else to go out," the officer, who would not give his name, told a reporter. "That treaty with the United States is very serious, and it must be observed."

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