The Miami Herald
Aug. 02, 2002

Cuban defectors flee Nicaragua, only to wind up in jail

  BY CAROL ROSENBERG

  Most of the 20 Cuban men who accepted political asylum in Nicaragua after spending months -- years, in some cases -- at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, waiting to find refuge elsewhere have left the Central American country only to wind up in jail.

  Most, if not all, were trying to reach Miami and other U.S. destinations when they landed in lockups in Mexico and Texas, less than three months after a painstaking agreement with Nicaragua was worked out.

  Fourteen were detained after crossing into Mexico June 17, according to a letter U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen sent on July 22 to Mexican Ambassador José Juan Bremer. She relates their arrest in a plea not to return them to Cuba.

  Three are being held by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Texas after crossing the Rio Grande without proper documents, said St. Thomas University attorney Maria Dominguez, who is trying to get them paroled into the United States, which for Cubans is usually a pathway to permanent U.S. residency. They are Eliecier Claro, 26, whose parents live in Tampa; Tomás González, who has family in Miami, and Yorkis Aguilera.

  Three remain in Nicaragua: Ernesto Herrero, Eduardo Quintana and Eduardo Padrón, each of whom receives a $350-a-month stipend from a charity as part of a
  resettlement deal orchestrated by the U.S. Embassy and Nicaragua.

  MARRIES CITIZEN

  Herrero, 26, who like the others has a hard-luck story and still wants a new life in the United States, may turn out to be the most fortunate because he is now married to an American citizen.

  Born and raised in the portion of Guantánamo controlled by Fidel Castro, he was jailed for 18 months for trying to leave the island for the United States. He escaped a Cuban jail in 1998 and swam to the nearby U.S. naval base, where he waited 3 ½ years for political asylum.

  His destination was the United States, but the rules of asylum and immigration wouldn't allow that, so he was flown on May 1 to Nicaragua, along with the 19 other
  Cubans.

  He lives in a $70-a-month rooming house in Managua, the capital city -- jobless and trying to steer clear of Castro sympathizers, including militants of the once-ruling Sandinista Party.

  In late May, he married Ana Ford, 49, who says they met and fell in love while she was posted at the base as a petty officer. Now she is trying to navigate Washington's web of immigration bureaucracy to bring him to the United States -- legally.

  ''I'm very proud of him. He's very resourceful. He's surviving down there. And he's trying to come here legally,'' Ford said in a telephone interview from Concord, N.H., where she lives and works for the state environmental service as an inspector.

  At the Guantánamo base, her stint included work as a Spanish-English translator, which is how she met Herrero, whom she describes as ``the love of my life.''

  `HELL ON EARTH'

  While he waits in Nicaragua, however, most of the men who came with him have already fled.

  ''We were sent to a country that is truly a hell on earth. It's like we never left Cuba,'' Padrón, 33, told The Herald in a telephone interview, complaining of harassment by police loyal to the Sandinistas. ``We live in tremendous fear.''

  Since 1995, Navy and Coast Guard vessels have intercepted balseros, or rafters. Those who cannot make a legitimate claim for asylum are returned to Cuban
  authorities. The interdiction effort is supposed to create a legal, safe immigration flow through applications to the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

  Since then, dozens of Cubans have gone to Guantánamo, either by U.S. escort boat or, in the case of Herrero, by swimming across the bay for INS interviews on
  whether their return to Cuba would bring political persecution.

  Some have been rejected and returned to their homeland. Many have qualified for asylum and, through State Department efforts, have started new lives in such
  far-flung nations as Australia and Uruguay.

  They are people like Eliecier Claro, now at a U.S. immigration detention center in Los Fresnos, Texas, who swam the Rio Grande from Mexico. His parents legally
  immigrated to Tampa a year ago and are trying to get him paroled into the United States, says attorney Dominguez of the St. Thomas University Human Rights Institute.

  IN MEXICO

  Fourteen of the men didn't even make it as far as Texas and are now believed to be in Mexican jails.

  One identified by Padrón is Javier Pérez, who in May played the role of group spokesman in Managua.

  ''It's not that it's bad here, but we want to be reunified with our families,'' Pérez told reporters. ``We want the U.S. to give us the option to go to there.''

  He was part of a group captured by Mexican police June 17 after they entered the country, by bus, without permits or travel documents, according to Padrón and the letter by Ros-Lehtinen.

  U.S. officials, with the intervention of Florida Republican Reps. Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, helped secure the Nicaraguan sanctuary sometime after
  Ros-Lehtinen met with the men after a Jan. 24 congressional inspection of the Pentagon's international terrorist detention facilities in southeast Cuba.

  But a U.S. diplomat, who did not want to be identified, said many never gave life in Nicaragua a chance. A day after they received their work permits, which served as identification documents, about a dozen were intercepted by Nicaraguan authorities as they tried to board buses leaving the country. They got a stern warning: Under the terms of their political asylum, they could not go to a third country -- and that it would be illegal for them to enter the United States.

  Ros-Lehtinen's office identified one of the men as Jorge Alfonso, 24, the nephew of a constituent -- but she does not offer an opinion on whether they should continue to be held in Mexico, returned to Managua or permitted to enter the United States.

  STILL CONFIDENT

  Ford reports from New Hampshire that she is accumulating huge phone bills calling her husband in Managua, urging him to stay put while, with the help of Republican Sen. Bob Smith's office, she gets him a visa and travel papers.

  She is confident, she says, that she can convince a U.S. immigration service inspector that their marriage is real, their age difference notwithstanding. She has the
  phone bills and photos from their Managua wedding to prove it.

  ''He's just adorable,'' she said, adding that once he has settled in the United States they hope to adopt children.

  Herald staff writer Daniel A. Grech contributed to this report.