Retired players who missed flight return to Cuba

Some say the six were denied fair chance to seek asylum in U.S.

May 06, 1999|By Peter Hermann and Karen Hosler | Peter Hermann and Karen Hosler,SUN STAFF

Six retired Cuban baseball players who reportedly overslept in Baltimore and missed their return flight Tuesday flew home yesterday amid complaints by congressmen who said the stragglers did not get a fair chance to seek asylum here.

Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who came to Baltimore Monday and protested the exhibition game between the Orioles and a Cuban all-star team, said immigration agents interviewed the six at Baltimore-Washington International Airport just before the Air Jamaica plane took off at 8: 30 a.m.

"If that's true, it's not worthy of us as a country," Menendez said in an interview. "How do you ask someone if they are leaving the country voluntarily, when Cuban Security is standing right there?"

Michael Gilhooly, a spokesman with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, confirmed that the interviews took place on the mobile walkway between the terminal and the plane.

He said each of the six was interviewed separately. "There were no Cuban diplomats anywhere near them when this took place," Gilhooly said. "Our agents were absolutely convinced that these people wanted to return to Cuba."

Protest by Cuba

Luis Fernandez, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, the unofficial Cuban embassy, protested that his government had not been informed of the meetings. But he said the former players "wanted to return to their motherland."

He said Cuba would find it "offensive" if the six were asked whether they were leaving voluntarily. It was not clear, he said, whether Cuba would lodge a protest with the State Department. The countries do not have diplomatic relations.

The complaints from Menendez and another Cuban-American congressman, Florida Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart, followed speculation and charges in the wake of Tuesday's defection of a retired 54-year-old pitcher. Rigoberto Betancourt Herrera walked out of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel early Tuesday and requested asylum hours later at a Baltimore police station.

INS officials retreated from their suggestion Tuesday that other Cubans might be missing from the delegation. "As far as we know, everybody is accounted for," Gilhooly said.

Concerns about defections ran high during the Cubans' visit. Anti-Castro groups encouraged them, and a member of an exile group said he talked with three players in the hotel lobby Sunday night. Cuban officials complained that Joe Cubas, a Miami-based sports agent for Cuban baseball talent, was parked outside the hotel in a stretch limousine.

A Cuban official said privately that delegation leaders grew worried during a post-game reception given by the Orioles and Major League Baseball, from which several members of the Cuban delegation were missing.

Cuban officials quickly decided to cut their visit short. They awakened the 335-member delegation before 4 a.m. and bused them to the airport for a 6: 07 a.m. flight, nine hours ahead of schedule. They said they left the six former players behind in the confusion.

Jerry Horton, who owns a music store in Alexandria, Va., said he and his wife bought Betancourt beers after the game in the hotel bar and that the former pitcher walked out as the delegation packed to leave about 3 a.m.

"He gave no indication he was unhappy with life in Cuba," Horton said, adding that he was surprised to hear later on the radio that Betancourt had defected.

Asylum decision pending

Betancourt was reportedly in protective custody yesterday. INS officials said they do not comment on those seeking asylum. Menendez said INS officials told him it would take a day or two to decide whether to grant him asylum.

Cuban exile groups in Miami were looking for Betancourt's relatives but said no one had come forward. "His whole situation is a complete mystery," said Jose Cardenas, Washington director for the Cuban American National Foundation.

Menendez said his concern about the six retired players was fueled by Cuban officials' insistence that the six were left behind because of an oversight.

Cuban exile groups speculated that the six wanted to defect but that Betancourt was the only one who made it.

"Cuban security is not that careless," Menendez said.

INS officials said there were no indications that the Cuban delegation felt pressured to go home. "These guys were very upset that they were missing the celebrations back in Cuba," one said.

Sun staff writer Joe Mathews and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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