The Miami Herald
Aug. 09, 2003

U.S. official: Cuba may have staged boat hijacking


  A top Bush administration official Friday said the Cuban government may have orchestrated a recent boat hijacking to drive a wedge between South Florida's Cuban Americans.

  ''Look at the result, at the impact that has caused this community,'' Otto Reich, U.S. special envoy to the Western hemisphere, said in an interview.

  In the wake of last month's hijacking of the Gaviota, a Cuban government-owned boat, Cuban Americans heaped blame on the Bush administration and Cuban-American legislators for returning the would-be immigrants to the island.

  ''This was a million-dollar operation -- you couldn't buy that kind of discord,'' Reich said.

  Reich, who was born in Cuba, was in Miami this week meeting with Cuban-American leaders to soothe bitterness over the incident.

  Meanwhile, the Cuban American National Foundation -- which, in a role that is rare, is the main group criticizing the Bush administration -- didn't buy Reich's story, and said his accusations were made to deflect criticism, spokesman Joe Garcia said.

  ''Show me the proof,'' Garcia said.

  The Gaviota, which left from eastern Camaguey province, posed problems to U.S. immigration policy the moment it was discovered off the Cuban coast. Earlier this spring, the Cuban government shot to death by firing squad three hijackers who tried to spirit a ferry out of Havana Harbor, and some feared it would do the same with others.

  The United States intercepted the boat and returned 12 people to the island after the Cuban government promised it would not sentence them to death -- prompting criticism that Washington had negotiated with Fidel Castro's government.

  Reich denied that Friday, saying the Cuban Interests Section had called the U.S. State Department to pledge it would not execute the hijackers. The State Department only asked that the Cuban government make assurances in writing, and broadcast on Cuban radio and television, Reich clarified.

  But the fact the phone call was made seemed odd to Reich.

  He said other parts of the voyage point to a setup:

  The boat was stolen with three Cuban guards aboard, after the hijackers managed to wrestle an AK-47 from a guard.

  Also, the boat was moving at 7 mph, yet was not stopped by the Cuban coast guard, and, when questioned by U.S. immigration inspectors, none of the 12 would-be immigrants said they feared being prosecuted upon return to the island, even though that could mean a chance at political asylum in the United States.