Cubans who sought asylum face bleak future

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 100 Cubans seeking asylum abroad remain in three diplomatic legations in Havana, but their chances of leaving the country appear to be nil. On the contrary, they face a lifetime ban on leaving Cuba, vigilance by the authorities and possible reprisals.

Forty-six of some 120 refugees who originally stormed over the fence of the Belgian ambassador's residence have filtered out of the building in recent days after reportedly being forced to live on little more than bread and water. Twenty one remain in the German embassy and nine in the Chilean consulate.

What the embassies at first dubbed 'Operation Sandwich', with diplomats' wives delivering food to them, has been ended and those who have left say conditions are becoming unbearable.

The 46 are now 'back in their homes,' according to the Cuban government, which has promised not to prosecute them but has said they will be barred forever from leaving the country. The government has said they could be prosecuted for other crimes, citing the example of the 21 who stole a lorry to crash into the German embassy grounds.

Belgium, West Germany and Chile, whose diplomats at first gave a warm if embarrassed reception to their surprise visitors, have been forced to succumb to pressure from the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Diplomats are reluctant to admit it, but strong hints are said to have been dropped that Belgian, German or Chilean business interests might not prosper if the refugees are given anything beyond basic sustenance.

The Belgian ambassador, Paul Vermiersch, was said to have been criticised by his own government for treating the refugees particularly well and not preventing them from holding up anti-Castro signs in the first days after they stormed the building.

In an editorial reflecting Mr Castro's own tough statement at the recent Ibero-American summit in Cartagena, Colombia, the official daily Granma said the asylum-seekers had only one way out: 'To leave unconditionally the way they came.'

Hinting at future prosecution of the refugees, Granma claimed 34 of them had previously been warned for 'anti-social activities' and 25 had been tried in the past for common crimes including robbery. 'Those guilty of crimes before or during the brutal entry into the foreign missions will be held responsible,' it said. And in a clear signal to anyone tempted to try the same, it added in capital letters: 'Absolutely no-one who penetrates a diplomatic mission by force will receive permission to leave the country, not now, not later. This is an immovable position and we will not cede under any circumstances.'

Cuban police have cordoned off the streets around the three occupied missions, keeping journalists well away. The Cuban authorities were clearly concerned by how some 120 Cubans, were able to gather in one place at the same time before storming into the Belgian building. Diplomats here believe that suggested a high level of organisation.

Granma repeated Cuba's assertion, which contains more than a grain of truth, that US immigration policy has created a 'bottleneck' for Cubans who want to get to what it sarcastically referred to as 'the promised land'.

Cubans still queue outside the US interests section - the equivalent of an embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations - on the Havana seafront. Most have little trouble getting an exit permit from Cuban authorities but only a small percentage are granted visas by the US which fears most intend not simply to visit, but to stay.

The Cuban authorities, again sarcastically, refer to a small square opposite the US building as 'the Wailing Park,' since that, they say, is where Cubans weep after being refused US visas.

Under a 1984 agreement with Cuba, Washington can grant up to 20,000 visas a year to Cubans. But last year only 1,700 visas were granted.