In Rare Deal, U.S. and Cuba Halt Standoff
By MARC LACEY with DAVID FIRESTONE
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
officials in New York and Washington did not return
calls seeking comment on the agreement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the hostage-takers were led out of a side door,
unshackled, to a bus bearing the insignia of the immigration service.
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?"