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Cubans in the US Push Asylum For Refugees Detained at Bases

By Clemence FiagomeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 8, 1994



MIAMI

CUBAN exiles here are intensifying their efforts to garner the release of more than 30,000 Cuban refugees detained in ``safe havens'' at United States military bases.

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Their tools: the courts and personal cajoling.

Some of the cajoling will come next month when President Clinton meets with the leaders of 32 Latin American nations and Canada in Miami at a ``Summit of the Americas.''

More than 250 Cuban-American groups are planning a Dec. 11 march through the streets to protest the continued detention of the refugees at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Howard Air Base in Panama. The march is expected to attract up to 300,000 people.

In the courts, the Cuban exile community won a partial victory in their crusade last week.

The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled Friday that attorneys can visit Guantanamo and Panama to talk to the detainees. But the court also said that 1,000 refugees who want to return to Cuba can do so.

Attorneys for the refugees wanted what they called ``coerced'' repatriations back to Cuba to stop until the attorneys had met with the refugees. Members of the Cuban community here say the conditions in which the refugees are held are so harsh that, even though many risked their lives to flee Cuba on rafts, some would now prefer to go back home.

Escape from Guantanamo

Underscoring this point, 39 Cuban refugees escaped from the Guantanamo detention camp Sunday by crushing two fences, jumping off a cliff, and swimming to Cuban territory. Forty-six others were caught and returned.

The appeals court in Atlanta will hold a full hearing on Dec. 19 on demands by Cubans that the refugees be allowed to apply for political asylum.

In September, the Clinton administration reached agreement with the Cuban government to deny entry into the US of Cubans fleeing their country on rafts, and to grant 20,000 visas to Cubans to emigrate to the US. In return Cuba's President Fidel Castro Ruz would stop the seaborne exodus.

Administration officials say that allowing the refugees to apply for political asylum and be admitted into the US will undercut the agreement and its policy of dissuading future rafters.

Meanwhile, lawyers for Haitian refugees last week filed a lawsuit, similar to that of the Cubans, asking the court to stop repatriation of 6,000 Haitians at Guantanamo who are reluctant to go back to Haiti despite restoration of their democratically elected president.

Since July, when the US started detaining Haitian refugees at Guantanamo, 15,161 refugees have agreed to be repatriated. Most repatriations took place after US troops landed in Haiti in September and exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide returned to power Oct. 15.

The Haitian Refugee Center here says that refugees who don't want to go back to their homeland fear that US troops can't protect them in their villages. ``Human rights violations against Aristide supporters continue, and returnees specifically have been targeted,'' says Steven Forester, an attorney at the center.

Haitians' concerns

Attorneys for Haitians are concerned that the Clinton administration will give in to political pressure from the Cuban exile community on behalf of Cuban refugees at the expense of Haitians refugees. In their lawsuit, the lawyers ask the court to allow into the US 230 unaccompanied Haitian children detained at Guantanamo. The request is similar to a special reprieve that the US granted to some Cuban refugees last month.

``Although Cuban unaccompanied minors, elderly, and sick have been paroled into the United States, no equal treatment has been accorded Haitian unaccompanied minors, elderly, and sick,'' Mr. Forester says.

The government released the names of all Cuban refugees detained since the administration changed a 30-year policy of admitting Cubans into the US. The names of Haitian refugees detained since July were not released. Refugee-rights advocates want the court to order the names of Haitians released also. In addition, attorneys want to go visit the Haitians at Guantanamo.

The Haitian Refugee Center thinks Clinton wants to ensure that the Summit of the Americas is not disrupted by Cuban-American demonstrations and therefore may parole a good number of Cuban refugees into the US to placate the exiles. But the administration cannot do that with Haitians at Guantanamo. Hence the government's urgency to clear the base of Haitian refugees by Nov. 15, Forester says.

``If there are Haitians at Guantanamo and he [Clinton] tries to bring in Cubans, we will raise hell,'' he says.