By BARRY SCHWEID, AP Diplomatic Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - Secretary of State Madeleine Albright accused Cuba on Monday of arbitrarily denying exit permits to Cubans with U.S. visas, thereby separating families and forcing would-be immigrants to attempt high-risk escapes by boat.
In a statement, Albright said Cuba's actions violated agreements with the United States, international standards and ``fundamental human decency.''
She said she ordered a formal protest lodged with Cuba's diplomatic office in Washington. ``The government of Cuba is increasingly obstructing the safe, legal and orderly migration of individuals from Cuba,'' Albright said.
Disclosure of the diplomatic note, containing U.S. charges of inhumane behavior, follows a protracted and touchy U.S. dispute with Cuban Americans over 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez.
The boy was spirited from Cuba by his mother, who died at sea, and taken home by his father after a lengthy legal battle with emigre relatives in Florida. The Cuban government cited the incident in June when it indefinitely suspended immigration negotiations with the United States.
Unlike Elian and his mother, the 117 Cubans cited in the U.S. complaint had visas to go to the United States but were prevented from leaving Cuba.
In 16 cases, the denial separated families, while in 17 cases, physicians and other professionals were blocked from leaving, said Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman.
The diplomatic note alleged that Cuba had not abided by a 1994 agreement seeking to establish ground rules for the orderly migration of 20,000 Cubans plus family members to the United States.
``The Cuban government has consistently failed to take effective action in response to our continuing and legitimate humanitarian concerns,'' the note said.
The note was handed to Fernando Remirez, chief of the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington, and also was delivered to the Cuban foreign ministry in Havana. A copy was made available to The Associated Press. The complaint's substance and some details were later released by Reeker.
The Cuban mission offered no immediate reaction to the specific accusation.
However, spokesman Roberto Garcia criticized U.S. policy as criminal, immoral and discriminatory, saying the United States was responsible for deaths at sea because it encouraged Cubans to try to reach U.S. shores, knowing they would be warmly received.
``Most people who come here know once they reach American soil they will be granted benefits other immigrants don't get,'' Garcia said.
The U.S. note said 117 Cubans from 57 families had been denied exit permits by the Cuban government in a recent 75-day period. The United States had granted all of them visas.
``We think that they need to issue exit permits to all those individuals who have valid U.S.-entry documents,'' Reeker said. ``And at various times we've offered specific instances to them, as we have again today, where families were separated by their policies.''
A senior State Department official said Coast Guard personnel recently have picked up an increasing number of fleeing Cubans who have U.S. travel documents. Established procedures require that Cubans intercepted by the Coast Guard be returned to the island.
The note said the recent death of two fleeing Cuban brothers ``highlights the growing propensity of Cubans denied the means to migrate in a safe, orderly and legal fashion to risk their lives in desperate sea voyages.'' The brothers were victims of a shark attack in the Florida Straits.
According to the note, exit permits routinely are denied family members of Cubans who defect to the United States. ``The Cuban government is punishing entire families, including small children, for the action of one family member,'' the note said.
Over the years, officials said, Cuba generally had been living up to terms of the agreement but, as the diplomatic note suggests, that assessment has changed radically.
Cuba has long been a target of
both Republicans and Democrats in
election years. For example, economic sanctions against Cuba were
tightened in the presidential election years of 1992 and 1996.
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press.