The Miami Herald
 August 15, 1998

            Cuban ballplayers, others reach Nicaragua after trouble at sea

             By GLENN GARVIN
             Herald Staff Writer

             MANAGUA -- Seven Cuban refugees, including several baseball players who
             were thwarted in a May attempt to seek political asylum in Nicaragua, arrived here
             Friday -- one harrowing week after they left the island.

             Their small boat foundered at sea soon after they departed Pinar del Rio on Aug.
             7, the refugees said, but they were picked up by a larger boat bound for Costa

             They said the boat dropped them Thursday night in Puerto Cabezas, on
             Nicaragua's Atlantic coast about 240 miles northeast of Managua. They arrived in
             the Nicaraguan capital Friday afternoon on a commercial flight to face several
             hours of questioning by immigration officials.

             The trip was scary, but it was well worth it, one of the refugees said in a brief
             encounter with reporters when they emerged from immigration headquarters late
             Friday night.

             ``We wanted to be free,'' he shouted.

             The refugee, who didn't give his name, said the group headed for Nicaragua rather
             than much-closer Florida because Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman offered
             political asylum for Cuban rafters two months ago.

             Immigration officials said the Cubans had been granted 30-day tourist visas and
             the Nicaraguan government would welcome their applications for political asylum
             or residence.

             The refugees were accompanied on the flight from Puerto Cabezas by Ninoska
             Perez, spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation.

             Confirmation delayed

             It was the foundation that announced the arrival of the refugees late Thursday night
             in a press release issued in Miami. But government officials in Managua -- still
             embarrassed by an immigration controversy with Cuba earlier this year, and
             evidently unsure how to proceed while President Aleman is visiting South America
             -- refused to confirm anything about the refugees all day Friday.

             The foundation statement release identified the refugees as Michael Jova, 17;
             Jorge Diaz Olado, 23; Angel Lopez Berrido, 25; Osmani Garcia Santana, 23;
             Alain Hernandez Cardenas, 21; Ernesto Gonzalez Nuñez, 28; and Laura Sanchez
             Gomez, 23.

             The press release said the foundation ``was notified of the escape and asked for
             assistance earlier this week.'' But the organization's exact role in their flight from
             Cuba remained unclear.

             The foundation statement said five members of the group were baseball players. It
             said four of them were among a group of about 200 refugees who were denied
             political asylum in the Bahamas in May and sent back to Cuba.

             Jova, a star shortstop at the Junior Olympics, is considered a potential
             major-league player. The others are considered marginal by baseball experts. The
             best prospect among the group that went to the Bahamas, first baseman Jorge Luis
             Toca, was not among those returned to Cuba. He was released by Bahamian
             authorities and moved to Tokyo with his Japanese wife.

             Angry exchanges

             Bahamas' return of the refugees touched off angry diplomatic exchanges between
             Managua, Havana and Nassau after Aleman offered to grant them political asylum
             if the Bahamian government would agree not to deport them.

             Aleman, who received considerable support from Miami's Cuban exile community
             during his successful 1996 presidential race, offered asylum for the remaining
             refugees during a memorial Mass for foundation founder Jorge Mas Canosa.

             ``Whoever desires freedom will be welcomed to Nicaragua,'' Aleman said,
             ``because we too suffered dictatorships and persecution.''

             The Cuban and Bahamian governments told Aleman to butt out, and the refugees
             were sent back to Cuba. Although the Nicaraguan Embassy in Havana later gave
             some of the refugees visas to enter Nicaragua, Cuban authorities said they would
             never be permitted to leave the island.

             Herald sports writer Ken Rodriguez contributed to this report.