Cuban detainees in camps and prisons around the United States apparently spread early word of Saturday's uprising in Oakdale, La. - possibly before it occurred, some immigration officials suspect. Among men living without time horizons - no sentences to serve, uncertain prospects for release, the threat of deportation to Cuba hovering in the background - news and rumor passed like an electric current.
News that Cuba had once again agreed to accept the detainees - spread by news broadcasts and phone calls between inmates and relatives - set off uprisings in Atlanta and Oakdale by Cubans convinced they would be forced back to Cuba.
The confusion over who will actually be deported has been slow to clear.
After Cuban inmates took control of the Atlanta penitentiary Monday, Attorney General Edwin Meese III promised each detainee an individual hearing before deciding whether to deport him.
But lawyers and immigration officials note that the original agreement with Cuba specifically named 2,746 Cubans who would be deported, some of whom have since been paroled into US society. The Oakdale uprising was sparked by detainees expecting release soon, who suddenly believed they would be deported.
US State Department officials, however, say the agreement allows the attorney general flexibility to decide who will be deported now and how many. ``We have always operated with the understanding'' that Cuba would accept whoever the United States chose to send back, a State Department official said.
Gary Leshaw, a lawyer who accompanied federal negotiators at the Atlanta penitentiary, said yesterday that he believed resolution of the standoff was possible if the Cubans could be convinced that they would indeed get individual hearings, and that they could win some immunity from prosecution or retaliation for their rebellion. The difficulty, Mr. Leshaw said, is that ``there's nobody who speaks for everybody. It's a problem trying to negotiate like that.''
The Cubans were already getting slow hearings of their cases under the immigration service's Cuban review plan, although these hearings did not alter their deportation status. They decided only whether the detainees presented a danger to the community and could be paroled to freedom - either directly to their families or through halfway houses.
US Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia has complained in recent months that the review plan has lacked due process for the Cuban detainees, such as neutral decisionmakers, access to their own records, legal counsel, and individual hearings for each detainee.
Yet each detainee has violated the ``parole'' status granted upon entering the country by some infraction of the law - most frequently involving drugs.
The detainees have all completed their sentences, some years ago. About 300 of them have been in custody since they set foot in the United States seven years ago, deemed either serious felons or mentally ill. A Supreme Court decision last year affirmed that the Cubans had no constitutional rights under US law preventing their indefinite detention.
Instead, their destiny has been at the discretion of the US attorney general, who has decided they are ``undesirables'' to be excluded from entering the US. Currently almost 3,800 ``excluded'' Cubans are in detention, and as many as 4,000 more are headed for detention when they complete criminal sentences.
The total of nearly 8,000 excludables far outnumbers the 2,746 in the original agreement with Cuba - 201 of whom have already been deported.
Presumably, those with less serious offenses are those least likely to be deported after immigration officials review their cases. The review process, according to a State Department official, ``could take years.''
In Houston, Ron Parra, the Immigration and Naturalization Service district director, is investigating whether Cuban detainees in the Houston area actually knew the Oakdale uprising was going to occur beforehand. ``The inmates learned either before or right after the uprising in Louisiana,'' says INS spokesman Lisa Jacobs in Houston.
At the jail in Biloxi, Miss., where 45 Cubans are held, ``We feel that they knew something big was going down'' before officials did, says assistant warden Bruce Carver. The detainees there, are calm, he notes. ``They feel like they're not the ones who are going to be deported.''