The New York Times
December 20, 1999

 In Rare Deal, U.S. and Cuba Halt Standoff


           WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 -- United States officials ended a
           hostage standoff at a Louisiana prison by striking a deal with the
          Cuban government that will permit the seven Cuban inmates at the center
          of the uprising to be deported to Havana, federal officials said today.

          The seven, all deemed threats to public safety by the United States, had
          completed prison sentences for crimes committed in the United States
          but were being held indefinitely because their deportation -- the usual
          procedure for felons who are not citizens -- had been blocked by the
          government of Fidel Castro.

          But Cuba dropped its opposition in an agreement reached with the State
          Department on Saturday, and late Saturday night the seven remaining
          hostages, including two jail employees and five inmates, were set free,
          and the inmates surrendered.

          The agreement was highly unusual for two countries that do not
          acknowledge each other diplomatically and cannot reach consensus on
          far less sensitive matters. What it may portend for U.S.-Cuba relations
          remains uncertain. The deal leaves unaddressed the status of
          approximately 2,400 other Cubans who are in United States jails
          awaiting deportation to Cuba, some of whom have resorted to violence
          in the past to show their discontent.

          The prisoners arrived in the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift,
          during which Mr. Castro sent thousands of criminals to Miami.

          "There is clearly a great deal of frustration among the Cubans who are
          under detention without any sign of deportation," said Russ Bergeron, a
          spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "We view this
          case as distinct from the others. Here, the inmates specifically asked to
          be returned to Cuba and the Cuban government agreed to take them.
          That is not the case in the bulk of the 2,400 others."

          There are seven Cubans who are expected to be deported. Officials said
          five were in the prison at the time of the surrender, and two others were
          believed to be the inmates who gave up earlier in the week.

          Justice Department officials said the decision to grant the inmates'
          demands was appropriate in this case because it coincided with United
          States interests. Attorney General Janet Reno was closely involved in the
          decision, aides said, as were officials in the White House and the State

          "These inmates requested to be returned to Cuba," said Carole Florman,
          a Justice Department spokeswoman, "and if they had been from
          anywhere else they would have been returned."

          "The bottom line," Ms. Florman said, "is we have a resolution here that's
          in the best interests of the United States. We have a situation that might
          have ended in a messy way that ended smoothly."

          The State Department contacted Cuban officials through the United
          States interests section in Havana and worked out a deal in which Cuba
          would accept the inmates, a State Department spokeswoman said.

          Cuban government officials in New York and Washington did not return
          calls seeking comment on the agreement.

          Around midnight, the inmates were taken from the prison in a bus to an
          undisclosed site under the custody of the immigration service. Officials
          said the exact timing of the deportation remained unclear, although it
          would most likely take place within a few days.

          Because there are no direct commercial flights between the United States
          and Cuba, the inmates could be returned on a charter flight, a military
          aircraft or a Coast Guard cutter.

          Authorities in Louisiana said a chaplain, a Spanish-language television
          producer and the mother of one of the hostage-takers all helped resolve
          the standoff. It was Mercedes Villar, the mother of the inmate Roberto
          Villar-Grana, who first disclosed the deal between the countries.

          "It's over," Mrs. Villar told reporters, indicating that she had seen a
          written agreement guaranteeing the inmates' safe passage to Cuba.
          "They're on the bus now and going to Cuba. They're going to an airplane
          and going to Cuba."

          The rare moment of cooperation between the United States and Cuba
          came as the countries remained at odds over another immigration case,
          that of Elián González, a 6-year-old boy who was rescued off the Florida
          coast on Nov. 25. The boy had survived a boat capsizing that had
          claimed the lives of his mother and stepfather, who were trying to flee

          Cuba has condemned the United States for not immediately returning the
          boy to his father in Cuba.

          After initial hesitation, the immigration service has sent signals recently
          that it intends to send the boy home.

          It was unclear whether there was any connection between the González
          case and the deportation agreement. A Justice Department said she
          knew of no connection.

          As for the hostage case, the inmates, demanding to be released or sent to
          another country, took over the prison in St. Martinville, La., last
          Monday. Wielding a knife and screwdriver, they held the warden, Todd
          Louviere; a deputy, Jolie Sonnier; and five female inmates. Another
          deputy, Brandon N. Boudreaux, who had been held since the uprising
          began, came out of the jail late Thursday.

          After committing crimes in this country -- offenses ranging from drug
          possession to rape and murder -- the Cubans from the boatlift served
          their sentences and then found themselves in a legal limbo.

          In all of their cases, an immigration judge had ordered them out of the
          country, but the lack of a repatriation agreement between the United
          States and Cuba made that impossible. Because they had been deemed
          threats to society by an immigration judge, the immigration agency could
          not release them pending deportation, immigration officials said.

          Immigrants facing deportation can seek to be sent to a country other than
          their country of origin as long as that country agrees to accept them. "If
          any third country had agreed to take them, we would have sent them,"
          said Mr. Bergeron, the I.N.S. spokesman.

          The six-day ordeal ended shortly before midnight on Saturday, when a
          group of police officers and F.B.I. SWAT team members began running
          out of the jail, jumping up and down, cheering and throwing their helmets
          and riot shields into the air. When reporters asked them what was
          happening, they said the Cubans had given up.

          Moments later, the jail warden who had been shackled to a chair and
          held at knifepoint since Monday was wheeled out on a stretcher to an
          ambulance. Warden Louviere, who had grown a beard while a hostage,
          was sitting up, shaking hands and smiling. He had a black eye and a
          cheek welt, which he received in the initial fight with his captors, but did
          not appear to be seriously harmed.

          "Besides what you see on my face, they didn't do anything, and that's
          really nothing," the warden told reporters at a news conference this

          The other remaining jail employee, Deputy Sonnier, came out next. She
          was not sitting up on her stretcher. She and Mr. Louviere were taken to
          a local hospital, and officials said neither had been seriously harmed.

          Minutes later, the hostage-takers were led out of a side door,
          unshackled, to a bus bearing the insignia of the immigration service.

          Some experts attributed the prison uprising to a flawed policy toward
          Cuba, which has forced the immigration service to keep the Cuban
          inmates in prison well after their sentences have expired. Wayne Smith,
          who was the ranking American diplomat in Havana under Presidents
          Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and is a leading critic of the embargo
          against Cuba, said: "If they'd gone to the extreme of murder, no one
          would have supported these inmates. But you really have to sympathize
          with them. What are they supposed to do, just sit there?"