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Come right in, US tells baseball refugee

A former Cuban baseball star was cleared to enter America yesterday after escaping from Cuba by boat. Five of his fellow passengers are unlikely to be so lucky. Mary Dejevsky asks if the US operates double standards when offering asylum to Cubans.

Few would argue that Orlando Hernandez did not constitute a special case. "El Duque" (the Duke), was a star pitcher for Cuba's national baseball team, one of Cuba's elite. But that came to an end two years ago, when his younger brother, Livan, also a baseball star, defected to the United States.

While Livan rose to stardom in his adopted country, helping the outsiders, the Florida Marlins, to victory in the 1997 World Series, Orlando was banned from his national team, harassed by officials and blamed for his brother's escape.

Early on 26 December, Orlando, his girlfriend, Noris Bosch, and six others left Cuba in a small sailing boat, hoping to reach Florida. But the boat started to take on water and they were forced to land on the remote Anguilla Cay on the fringe of the Bahamas. After almost four days, they were picked up by the US Coast Guard and handed over to the Bahamian authorities. By Tuesday they were in detention in Nassau.

For more than three years, US policy on Cuban "boatpeople" has been firm: they are repatriated unless they qualify for political asylum by demonstrating "well-grounded fear of persecution". The Bahamas has a similar policy.

Having failed to reach the Florida coast, Hernandez and the others were liable to be sent back. Instead, the State Department went into overdrive. Officials cited "special circumstances" - the only question was which would guarantee Hernandez's speediest entry into the US while setting fewest precedents.

A State Department spokesman, James Foley, spoke of his "close ties to the United States", the status of his brother as "a well-known sports figure" and the fact that "he has suffered already reprisals in Cuba as a result of his brother's defection". The US took "very seriously", said Mr Foley, Hernandez's "strong fear of additional and increased persecution" if he were sent back to Cuba.

Hernandez received a visit from the US ambassador in Nassau, representatives of Florida-based emigre organisations, and a leading Cuban emigre sports agent. Within 36 hours, he, his girlfriend and a second baseball player in the boat had been granted permission to enter the US.

Their five companions, however, are still in detention in Nassau. They are likely to be deported.