Cubans Give Up, Release Hostages : Prisoners in Atlanta Sign Accord Affecting 3,800 Detainees in U.S.
Cuban inmates signed an agreement with the federal government early today and freed their 89 hostages, bringing a peaceful end to the 11-day takeover of the Atlanta federal prison.
The eight-point agreement, signed just after 1 a.m., provides a moratorium on deportation of the estimated 3,800 Cuban detainees nationwide, officials said. Among other things, it also provides for no reprisals against inmates for damage to the prison and for individual reviews by next June of their eligibility to remain in the United States.
Auxiliary Bishop Agustin A. Roman of the Miami archdiocese, a 59-year-old Cuban-born prelate, was one of the first people to sign the agreement. He flew to Atlanta late Thursday and was then flown into the prison by government helicopter.
Others at Signing
Two leaders of Cuban refugee advocacy groups in Atlanta, Carla Dudek and Gary Leshaw, were present at the signing.
Applause broke out in the chamber near the prison kitchen when the final signature went on the document. The participants then shook hands and hugged.
Immediately after the signing, the inmates sang the Cuban national anthem and began releasing the hostages. The captives walked down a line of tactical officers where many hugged members of their families before being taken away in vans.
Officials said the hostages, who all appeared to be in good health, would be given medical exams before being released to rejoin their families.
Cheers erupted from family members as the captives filed out of the prison.
“I could walk on air,” said Carol Dixon, whose husband, Gene, was a hostage.
After all the hostages were released, Roman addressed the inmates, praising them for putting an end to their prison revolt and freeing the hostages. He then led the group in prayer.
Authorities said the inmates are expected to be transferred soon to about 15 other correctional facilities around the country.
The inmates reportedly had wanted the formal signing to be witnessed by seven outside persons, including the bishop, who played a key role in ending a similar eight-day siege at the federal detention center in Oakdale, La.
Both the Oakdale rebellion, which began on the night of Nov. 21, and the Atlanta uprising, which began two days later, were sparked by news of an agreement between the United States and Cuba to deport some of the detainees to their native country.
Inmates Call Officials
Earlier Thursday, Patrick Korten, a Justice Department official, said inmate leaders had called federal officials at about 4 p.m. to announce that the pact had been approved by a majority of the detainees.
The mutinous detainees voted on the two-page pact about 2 1/2 hours after it had been approved in Washington by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III and tentatively agreed to at the prison by six inmate leaders.
According to a message broadcast by inmates from a loudspeaker atop the prison hospital annex, the vote was taken after about two hours of debate in the prison chapel by the 1,105 Cuban detainees at the prison.
Korten said federal officials were informed that the vote was not unanimous, but that the inmate leaders would enforce the majority will on the others.
Another Justice Department spokesman, Thomas Stewart, said federal officials had recommended that the accord be signed in the part of the prison where the negotiations had taken place.
News of the outcome of the vote on the pact came first from inmates on the hospital annex roof. They cheered and shouted, and blew kisses to their wives and loved ones standing across the street from the prison.
Then they stood stiffly at attention as the Cuban national anthem was played over the loudspeaker.
Wives of the hostages, who have kept a constant vigil across the street, were elated by the news.
“I’m floating on a cloud right now,” said Martha Heredia of Laredo, Tex., who wore a blue parka pulled tight against the chilly evening wind. “I was getting ready to go home because I didn’t see an end to this, but now it looks like it’s finally over.”
Gladys Miranda of New York, whose husband, Eladeo, was among the inmates on the hospital annex roof, said: “I’m glad they did this (take over the prison). If this hadn’t happened, they would have sent them all back to Cuba. I’m really proud of all of them, especially my husband.”
Earlier in the evening, about 200 people filled a small nearby church for a prayer service and then marched to the prison, carrying candles and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
“We thank you, Lord, we thank you,” said Betty Williams, the wife of a hostage. “And for all of the detainees, Lord, we ask your blessing upon them, oh Lord, because we do not want to pray selfishly.”
Steven Donziger, a spokesman for the suburban Atlanta-based Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees, said the uprising did more to improve the lot of the inmates than the seven years of litigation since their plight began.
“We don’t condone what they did,” he said. “But the reality is clearly that it did accomplish more. The tragedy of the whole thing is that they had to burn down Oakdale and half of this place to get the most minimal rights.”
He added: “It didn’t have to go this far. If the government had made some concessions earlier, this never would have happened.”
Cubans Broadcast Message
Only hours before the vote to end the Atlanta uprising, the Cubans broadcast a message in Spanish to President Reagan from their rooftop public address system--dubbed “Radio Mariel” after the name of the port in Cuba from which 125,000 Cubans came in a “freedom flotilla” to the United States in 1980.
“We implore you to bring this to a just finish,” the message said. “You are an honorable man and you have seen a lot of events which have had an impact reaching worldwide. Please listen to our plea. We are asking for just a little.
“We believe, Mr. President Reagan, that you can bring this crisis to an end, and the simple justice and reality we trust is in your hands. We don’t want to go to any Communist country. . . . We are ready to die in this attempt. We believe our cause is just.”
The agreement to end the prison takeover came just one day after the inmates’ negotiators conferred with an Atlanta Legal Aid Society attorney and prison officials played a tape-recorded message from Bishop Roman over the prison’s public address system.
Cites ‘Stumbling Block’
Leshaw, the Legal Aid attorney, told reporters after his meeting with the inmates that one major “stumbling block” remained to a settlement, but he declined to state what it was.
Deportation, however, was known to be among the primary concerns.
On Thursday, after a correspondent for a Spanish-language network held up a sign saying: “What is missing to reach an agreement?” the inmates on the roof used their “Radio Mariel” loudspeaker system to reply: “We want the American government to guarantee that they will not deport us to Cuba or any other Communist country.”
Oddly enough, on the morning of the agreement, federal officials expressed doubts that a settlement would be reached soon. At a 10 a.m. press briefing, for example, Korten criticized what he called the “excessive optimism” of some press and television reports.
“We are not right around the corner from a settlement at this time,” he said.
He said that some reporters had attached too much significance to steps federal officials had taken to set up a pool coverage arrangement in which a handful of selected reporters were to be allowed inside the prison in preparation for the settlement.
“Cut it out,” he said. “We started to work on such arrangements yesterday (Wednesday) for only two reasons. First, we have had many requests from journalists to establish pool arrangements; and second, we had a fairly slow day yesterday, which allowed us some time to devote to the matter.”
Just before Korten made his remarks, Cuban exile leader Huber Matos Jr. disclosed another unfavorable development. He told reporters that inmates on the prison rooftop were growing apprehensive about the unusual number of flights around the prison compound by unmarked government Huey helicopters.
“They said helicopters have been hovering over the area where the hostages are, that the hostages are very nervous but they (the inmates) also are nervous,” Matos said.
Matos was part of a delegation of public officials and Cuban exile leaders who came to Atlanta last week from Miami in hopes of aiding in negotiating a settlement but who were rebuffed by federal authorities.
Remains in Atlanta
Matos and his father, Huber Matos Sr., president of a Miami-based anti-Castro group known as Cuba Independent and Democratic, remained in Atlanta.
Korten told reporters that the helicopters were there for observation and would continue their reconnaissance missions for as long as federal officials deemed them to be necessary.
Freed hostages from both the Oakdale detention center and the Atlanta prison had said that some of their worst fears were aroused when helicopters buzzed the facilities.
“I would jump every time we heard the helicopters on the roof,” Abdul-Saboor Rushdan, a senior corrections officer at the Atlanta prison, told the Atlanta Constitution. “We knew there was no way they could successfully rescue us--we were on the top floors of different buildings. Any advance they made could be easily seen out the windows.”
Rushdan was released by the Cuban inmates Tuesday in honor of the 29th birthday of Dudeck, head of the Coalition to Support Cuban Detainees.
Three days before, four other hostages had been released after advocates for the detainees, inmates, wives and Cuban exile leaders appeared on a local radio show closely monitored by the inmates and appealed to them to free some of their captives as a sign of good will.
About two dozen inmates and guards had been treated at hospitals since the uprising began and one inmate remained hospitalized Thursday. One inmate died and three buildings were burned in the first day of rioting.