Cuba moves to block beaches

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WITH Washington watching nervously to see whether the agreement with Cuba on curbing emigration to America can be made to stick, the Cuban regime yesterday accelerated measures to block its citizens from taking to the ocean.

Barely hours after the accord was finalised between the US and Cuba in New York late on Friday, there was evidence of a renewed surge of departures from Cuba's beaches. This after authorities in Havana had given Cubans a period of grace until midday tomorrow to abandon efforts to leave.

By yesterday, however, the government appeared to be taking steps to avert a last-minute exodus, issuing a ban on the transport of all seafaring materials by road to the beaches.

The Clinton adminstration has hailed as a rare diplomatic success the accord under which it pledged to grant visas to at least 20,000 Cubans seeking to enter the US annually, in return for an undertaking by the Castro regime to halt the six-week-old exodus that has seen 35,000 Cubans flee to the US.

In addition to concern over whether President Fidel Castro will be able to deliver his side of the bargain, there is deepening anxiety in Washington about the plight of the 25,000 Cubans picked up at sea by US cutters in recent weeks and held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

US guards at the base, which is also home to almost as many Haitian refugees, were briefly overwhelmed late on Saturday by 2,500 Cubans who broke through fences and marched in protest against the US-Cuban deal. One Cuban was injured by a marine's bayonet.

It is the nightmare of the US military that discontent among both Cubans and the Haitians, most of them housed in a tent-city, may boil over into mutiny. Under Friday's deal, Cubans at the base will have no fast route to the US. They will have to return to Cuba and join the queue for visas or stay in US camps indefinitely.

But attention in Washington is beginning to drift away from Cuba to the other Caribbean flashpoint. This weekend saw a rising chorus of warnings from senior officials that the US was ready to invade Haiti, barring a last-minute change of heart by the illegal leadership of Lieutenant-General Raoul Cedras. Some Pentagon sources indicate that an invasion may be as little as one week away

Confirming that Washington had virtually given up on all other means of persuading General Cedras to go, the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said yesterday: 'We have exhausted every diplomatic endeavour.' He also swatted away suggestions that President Clinton was now tempted to take military action to boost his own political fortunes. 'Those charges are just pure boloney. There is no partisanship in this situation.'

Mr Christopher defended the administation's refusal in last week's talks with Cuba to include consideration of America's 32-year-old embargo against the country. There is a strong body of opinion in Washington, not least on Capitol Hill, that believes the policy is antiquated and counter-productive. He said that Mr Castro 'knows that when they take steps towards democracy, steps towards free markets, and steps towards addressing the human rights situation, the United States will respond in a carefully calibrated fashion'.

(Photograph omitted)