Cuban `angel' tries to save refugees

A gifted 12-year-old Cuban girl, who fled the island with her family on a raft last summer, has become a symbol of the plight of 28,000 increasingly desperate Cuban refugees in US camps at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Panama.

Lizbet Martinez is free now and living in Miami, but she is campaigning, with the help of her violin, to get fellow-refugees out of the camps and into the United States. She is being described by Cuban-Americans as "an angel from God".

Lizbet fled the Caribbean island with her dentist mother and lorry-driver father after the Cuban leader Fidel Castro lifted restrictions on leaving the country by sea. They were heading for southern Florida but, like most rafters at the time, were pickedup by a US coastguard cutter after several days at sea and taken to the US base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba's eastern tip.

Lizbet's violin became her ticket to freedom. During a visit to the camp at the end of last year, Roberto Perez, a Cuban-American Methodist minister, was moved to hear her play the US anthem. He launched a campaign to win her release and she finally arrived, with her parents, to a hero's welcome last week.

Since then, playing the Cuban and American anthems in various churches, leading prayers for her compatriots in the camps and appearing on TV shows, she has brought the issue of the refugees back into the headlines.

And the news from the camps is not good. So bad are conditions at Guantanamo that 41 people have either attempted suicide or carried out "suicide gestures" in the hope of being flown to the US. They have tried to hang themselves, set fire to themselves, cut their wrists or swallowed bleach, shampoo, nails or even the razor wire used to fence them in.

The US has began evacuating the Panama bases, returning refugees to Guantanamo, as agreed with the Panamanian government, but at least 20 rafters have tried to kill themselves in the past two months, according to Brigadier General James Wilson, commanderof the bases.

Two refugees were killed and more than 200 US troops hurt when the rafters rioted in December in protest against their continued detention and demanded to be taken to the US.

Perhaps the biggest indication of the refugees' desperation is the fact that more than 400 have returned legally to Cuba, after a long bureaucratic process, 150 more have applications pending and several have lost patience and risked Cuban-laid minefields to escape back to Castro's regime. The main reason is not so much the physical conditions in the camps, although those are basic, according to US psychologists and social workers sent to Guantanamo to assist the refugees.

The main problem is psychological, one of desperation and frustration over the uncertainty of their future. They were well aware they were risking their lives to leave Cuba; many are mourning the loss of family members from drowning or dehydration duringthe attempted crossing.

For the more than 8,000 refugees who have been in Panama, the stress factor is perhaps the worse. Taken there from Guantanamo last September as the latter filled up, most of them had volunteered to get farther from Cuba. When the US began returning them to Guantanamo last week, under a six-month agreement with Panama that expires on 6 March, some embarrassed US officers reminded the refugees "President Clinton made this policy, not us".

The Americans even put up a huge banner reading "Buena Suerte" (Good Luck) over the tarmac as the refugees filed on to transport planes.

Cuban exiles in Miami, many with relatives in the camps, fear Bill Clinton is "going soft" on Cuba and have launched an initiative to get most of the refugees to the US this year. They cite a call by the new chairman of the Democratic Party, Senator Christopher Dodd, for a "real dialogue" with President Castro.

Joined together in what they call the Ad Hoc Family Reunification Programme, the exiles are promising to give homes to the refugees and hope to raise $30m (£19.2m) to pay for health insurance and other costs to offset anti-immigration sentiment among many Americans.

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