Cuban marine patrols, determined to stop refugees from reaching the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, have repeatedly tossed grenades and shot at fleeing swimmers and recovered some bodies with gaff hooks, U.S. officials charged Tuesday.
At least three Cubans have been killed in the past month as Cuban patrol boats attacked swimmers within sight of U.S. Navy personnel at Guantanamo.
The killings are the latest sign that Cuba is resorting to
violent means to stop a torrent of desperate people from fleeing the impoverished island.
"This is the most savage kind of behavior I've ever heard of," said Robert Gelbard, deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin America. The United States has no previous record of such activity in Cuba, he added, calling the practice "even worse than what happened at the Berlin Wall."
The Clinton administration filed a formal protest Monday with the government of President Fidel Castro, calling on Havana to "immediately cease these barbaric practices," said a State Department aide.
News of the attacks at Guantanamo comes amid a fierce crackdown by Cuban authorities on residents who try to leave the country.
On Thursday, Cuban patrols killed three people who tried to swim to a U.S.-registered speedboat near the town of Cojimar. The captain, a U.S. citizen and Florida Keys resident, was injured in a hail of bullets. A fifth man, also from South Florida, escaped.
In separate incidents Friday and Monday, authorities seized boats near Havana and Santa Cruz del Norte, arresting seven U.S. residents as they sought to help scores of relatives flee the island.
The men captured Monday were Cuban rafters who had spent only two months in this country.
"My brother did not want to live without his wife and two children," said Camilo Bourzac, 28, whose brother Ernesto, 31, is now in jail on the island.
The attacks on swimmers in Guantanamo Bay drew especially sharp criticism because the refugees might easily have been detained without violence, U.S. officials said. "The idea of blowing people up when they are vulnerable underwater is appalling," Gelbard said.
A State Department aide called the use of gaffs, usually used to pull gamefish into boats, to pull bodies from the water "an act of extreme cruelty."
According to the U.S. protest, U.S. military guards surveying the bay have witnessed five separate incidents:
* On June 19 at 2 p.m., U.S. guards, startled by the sounds of detonations, saw Cuban troops aboard patrol boats dropping grenades in the paths of several swimmers headed for the U.S. base.
* On June 20 at 1:30 p.m., Cuban troops repeated the action, then strafed the water with machine-gun fire.
* On June 26 at 11 a.m., three patrol boats surrounded a group of swimmers, lobbing grenades and spraying them with automatic weapons fire. At least three corpses were lifted out of the water with gaffs.
* On June 27 at 11:30 a.m., guards aboard patrol boats lobbed two grenades into the water.
* The same day, just before 3 p.m., a patrol boat opened automatic fire on a group of swimmers, who were later seen being pulled from the water. The swimmers' status was unknown.
U.S. officials said they did not know how many people had been killed in the recent Guantanamo incidents, but said at least three could not have survived the attacks.
The number of Cubans seeking to reach Guantanamo, where they can apply for political asylum, has surged this year.
The base, which remains the last Western outpost in a Communist nation, reports that 195 Cubans have reached the facility this year, more than the total of 152 for all of 1992.
The statistic stands in even greater contrast to the years prior to the end of the Cold War: in 1988, 21 Cubans reached the Guantanamo base; in 1989, there were only 12.
About 90 percent of the refugees come by sea, crossing the bay waters in small craft or by swimming. Fences, guard posts and several strips of minefields deter those attempting to enter the base by land.
U.S. diplomats who presented the protest note to the Foreign Ministry in Havana warned that the use of explosives so close to the U.S. base could be considered a "provocative act." The diplomats also lodged a separate protest Monday of last Thursday's shooting against the Key West-registered speedboat, the Midnight Express. They described the act as "an excessive use of force" against a boat that posed no danger to Cuba.
A Washington source said Tuesday that the boat's pilot, Ricky Hoddinott, who suffered gunshot wounds to the legs, told a U.S. diplomat that he and Hugo Portilla, a Cuban exile living in Miami, had traveled to Cuba to pick up five or six people.
However, when the Midnight Express approached Cojimar, between 50 and 100 people were waiting on the beach. About 30 jumped aboard and the boat began pulling away. At that point, Cuban Frontier Guards opened fire.
Hoddinott told the official that he raised his hands in surrender but the guards continued firing. Cuban officials said the troops were firing at the engines to disable the boat.
The State Department has not determined whether any of the others jailed in Cuba over the weekend are U.S. citizens. U.S. envoys in Havana have not visited the others or been asked to do so, officials said.
Cuban officials in Washington defended the crackdown on illegal entries into Cuban territory.
"We are going to continue picking up all boats that keep arriving in Cuban waters with the goal of smuggling people," said Jose Luis Ponce, spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. "We are not going to allow them to continue violating our sovereignty."
Herald staff writers Cynthia Corzo and Maria Morales contributed to this report.
* Jose Maria Garcia Vega
Status: In Cuban jail.
Known relatives: In Hialeah, mother Mercedes Vega. In Cuba, a wife and two children ages 2 and 3.
* Ernesto Wilfredo Bourzac Nieto
Status: In Cuban jail.
Known relatives: In Miami Lakes, brother Camilo Bourzac. In Cuba, wife Martha, and sons Osvaldo, 2, and Wilfredo, 4.
* Jose Farinas Grova
Status: In Cuban jail.
Known relatives: Unknown.
1988 21 1989 12 1990 63 1991 228
*As of July 6
Source: U.S. State Department
Cuban rafters picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard:
*As of July 6
Source: U.S. Coast Guard
© 1996 The Miami Herald.