Latin America File: Catch-22 traps Havana's embassy asylum-seekers

The saga of the Belgian ambassador to Cuba's 124 unwanted house guests has become a serious problem for all concerned - the asylum-seekers, the Castro government, Belgium, its EU partners and not least the key background player, the United States.

The refugees, including 32 women and 24 children, who stormed into the elegant villa's grounds last Saturday, say they mean business. A spokesman said they were prepared to burn themselves rather than return to what they called 'a real hell on Earth'.

The publicity is the last thing Mr Castro needed after opening the door gingerly to a degree of capitalism. He said yesterday he deserved 'a rest' and foresaw a 'smooth transition', although he implied such a change would follow his death rather than his retirement. 'It's not my fault that I'm not dead yet, nor that the CIA has not managed to kill me,' he said. 'I'm a revolutionary and revolutionaries don't retire.'

He says the asylum-seekers will not be persecuted if they leave the villa. A show of force outside the building this week by his special forces, known as the 'Black Wasps' because of their uniforms, did not help his credibility. Some of those occupying the villa, imprisoned in the past for political opposition, are aware that the Wasps can sting.

While genteel European ambassadors' wives launched 'Operation Sandwich' to feed the asylum- seekers, Belgium and its EU partners were ensnared in a Catch-22: granting asylum to people who stormed an ambassador's home would open the floodgates. Tens of thousands of Cubans might swarm over diplomatic fences demanding similar treatment. Belgium's troubleshooter Willy Verriest, a former ambassador to Cuba, tried to negotiate a solution this week, but the problem is too big for Belgium, even with the backing of the EU.

The US State Department wheeled out its spokesman to reiterate that the crux of the problem was 'the lack of political and economic reforms' in Cuba. Perhaps. But, unless Mr Castro is run over by a bus - an unlikely prospect given the lack of fuel partly resulting from the US blockade - what is the solution?

The tragic irony of US policy is this: while thousands of Cubans risk their lives - and many die - trying to reach Florida on makeshift rafts, they do so not because Cuba has prevented them from leaving, but because the US Interests Section in Havana (the equivalent of an embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations) has refused them US visas. Exit visas are readily available from the Cuban authorities but of those who queue for visas, few are accepted. Anyone picked up from a raft by the US Coastguard, on the other hand, is automatically granted political refugee status in the US. It is a policy that effectively encourages Cubans to risk their lives on the narrow but treacherous Florida Straits.

When it comes to boat people from Haiti, within sight of Cuba, US policy is even more ambiguous. Fleeing Haitians picked up from leaky boats by the US Coastguard have long been returned to Haiti, handed dollars 5 and left to the mercy of the military or para-military groups at the Port-au-Prince docks. The official reason is that they are 'economic', not 'political', refugees but it is hard to believe that the colour of their skin is not the overriding factor. The fact that the US Coastguard, although otherwise kind to refugees, don rubber gloves before handling the Haitians, heightens the suspicion of racism.

President Bill Clinton announced last month that he would stop this forced repatriation policy, and Jamaica has agreed to let US naval vessels 'process' Haitian boat people off Jamaica's coast for the next six months. The Jamaican move came too late for the 1,439 Haitians plucked from rickety craft over the past three weeks and dumped back on the Port-au- Prince docks. Nor does it guarantee a life in the US for those building boats or awaiting friendly weather.

'Those who demonstrate a well- founded fear of persecution' will be resettled in the US or elsewhere under the new Clinton policy, a State Department spokeswoman said. She may not have been aware that there is barely a single Haitian outside the armed forces or military circles who does not have a well-founded fear of persecution.

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