Castro Vows to Stop Cuba Defections

By Anita Snow
Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 1999; 4:54 a.m. EDT

MATANZAS, Cuba (AP) -- While acknowledging that his government cannot control all unlawful emigration from the island, President Fidel Castro has promised to do what he can to stop Cubans from taking to the sea illegally and crossing the Florida Straits.

Speaking to some 100,000 government supporters gathered at a bayside plaza for a speech that stretched into the early morning today, Castro said new measures would include denying return visits to Cubans who left the country illegally after 1995, the year U.S.-Cuban immigration accords were signed.

``Those who leave legally will have the right to visit this country when they want,'' Castro said during the six hour speech, which began Tuesday night.

But those who leave illegally will have to wait at least five years before coming back to visit, a measure sure to make some family-oriented Cubans think twice before setting out for Miami without a U.S. visa.

Castro accused Miami-based exile groups of conspiring to derail U.S.-Cuba immigration accords by encouraging Cubans to leave the island illegally.

He also accused Washington of following policies that encourage people to take to the seas illegally while failing to fulfill annual quotas for legal immigration to the United States.

The U.S. government ``has unscrupulously made a joke of the accords we signed,'' Castro said, referring to agreements between the two countries regulating the flow of immigrants.

The speech was Castro's second major address in a little more than a week for Revolution Day, the annual July 26 celebration of the start of the rebellion that eventually brought Castro to power four decades ago.

During his speech, Castro accused the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, the ``extreme right sectors of Congress'' and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service of working together to sabotage agreements between the two countries.

``The mafia of Miami wants to liquidate the immigration accords,'' he said.

Immigration policies have been a source of tension between the United States and Cuba for several months. The tension has eased in recent days as Havana announced fines for Cubans who build boats intended for crossing the Florida Straits and Washington created a task force to combat the smuggling of Cuban immigrants.

When the Cuban government briefly lowered its coastal borders during the summer of 1994, more than 30,000 rafters crossed the straits or were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and sent to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo in eastern Cuba.

At that time, virtually any Cuban who left the communist country was automatically granted legal residency by the U.S. government.

But accords between Cuban and U.S. authorities later changed that, calling for the repatriation of all illegal Cuban emigrants who are picked up at sea by U.S. vessels or cross into the base at Guantanamo.

In the accords, Cuba vowed to try to halt all illegal departures for the United States. The United States agreed to help legal immigration by granting at least 20,000 U.S. visas to Cubans each year.

Castro complained that the visa quota has not been filled.

He also said that a wave of unfounded rumors -- first broadcast over the U.S. government's Radio Marti -- that Cuba planned to open its coastal borders has prompted a growing number of Cubans to leave the country illegally. The burgeoning practice of immigrant smuggling has also increased illegal immigration, he said.

Before his speech, Castro also paid homage to Cuba's baseball team, which beat the United States for the gold medal Monday at the Pan American Games.

``Their presence here is a great honor to all of us,'' the leader said amid resounding applause by tens of thousands of Communist Party faithful. He accepted the gold medal from the baseball players, including pitcher Jose Contreras, whose 13 strikeouts helped lead the team to a 5-1 victory in Winnipeg, Canada.

The speeches marked the 46th anniversary of the attack Castro led on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.

All the attackers were killed or jailed, but it set off the revolution that brought Castro to power on New Year's Day 1959 when then-dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the island.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press