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
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
``We wanted to be free,'' he shouted.
The refugee, who didn't give his name, said the group headed for Nicaragua
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
the Nicaraguan government would welcome their applications for political asylum
The refugees were accompanied on the flight from Puerto Cabezas by Ninoska
Perez, spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation.
It was the foundation that announced the arrival of the refugees late Thursday
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,
Jorge Diaz Olado, 23; Angel Lopez Berrido, 25; Osmani Garcia Santana, 23;
Alain Hernandez Cardenas, 21; Ernesto Gonzalez Nuñez, 28; and Laura Sanchez
The press release said the foundation ``was notified of the escape and
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.
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.
Bahamas' return of the refugees touched off angry diplomatic exchanges
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.