For the first time since thousands of Cubans began to flee the island nation by boat more than two weeks ago, President Fidel Castro's armed security forces were patrolling the beach Sunday, warning escaping Cubans not to take children aboard their rickety boats.
The order to keep children from risk came in a message from Castro published Sunday in Juventud Rebelde, Cuba's only Sunday newspaper.He said he would send border guards and internal police to patrol the beaches because "despite repeated warnings to people not to leave the country with children and adolescents aboard insecure boats, some people have continued to do so."
He said the guards would work on land to "persuade" people not to take children of high school age or younger on boats that were not seaworthy. If the would-be refugees persisted, the guards would use force if necessary, but they would not resort to using arms, the message said.
Mercedes Pichardo, 35, said Sunday that she was approached on Cojimar beach by a guard in camouflage uniform carrying a pistol. "He told us that it was prohibited to take children, pregnant women or old people on our boat, and if we did we would get four years in prison," she said. She added that her children are 19, 15 and 10 and the younger two will stay behind with their grandmother.
"It is very dangerous for children, so we leave them at home," she said, "but people are going to go anyway."
Castro's message also said forces would patrol Cuban waters in search of those who chose to defy the warnings on land.
Cubans who live near the coast and others who have been camping out on the beaches preparing to flee said that, until Sunday, no security forces had interfered with the surge of people making their way to the Florida Straits after Castro relaxed his measures to keep Cubans from fleeing and President Clinton tightened his policy on admitting Cuban refugees.
The patrols were not stopping every attempt to escape. Just before sundown, five men holding aloft a raft walked toward the harbor in downtown Havana. About 3,000 people poured out of their apartment buildings cheering them on. The police appeared and demanded the credentials of foreign journalists but did not interfere with the crowd. No arrests were made. In the confusion the men pushed out to sea.
The incident took place at the same location that was the scene of an anti-Castro protest two weeks ago that set off the current exodus.
The mass migrations began after a speech by Castro on Aug. 5 telling Cubans that if they wanted to leave, he would not stop them. Cuba has allowed some people to travel outside the island nation, but every year some escape illegally by taking to the sea and evading the naval patrols in coastal waters.
Since the speech, the U.S. Coast Guard has reported picking up nearly 17,000 fleeing Cubans. No one knows exactly how many people have perished in the seas, but officials say children were certainly among them.
The stormy weather that had kept people from fleeing this weekend did not improve, but some waiting on the beaches said the news of the talks was one more reason to speed their departure, for fear that the political climate would change.
"They say that if they talk, Castro will close off the coast," said Mayoris Ramirez Ochoa, hurrying to gather up her meager belongings. "So everyone is talking of leaving today."
For others, however, the idea of talks represented hope for Cuba.
"This is a disgrace, for people to be throwing themselves into the ocean in search of a better way of life," said Ana Rosa Hidalgo, 39, as she sat on a rubber inner tube on the beach.
"Both of them, Mr. Clinton and Fidel Castro, have the means to come up with a better immigration policy to avoid all these deaths. If I were there," said Mrs. Hidalgo, who worked as a guard on a military base, "I would ask Mr. Clinton why he is imposing this embargo on us. It is not hurting Castro's people but only the common people of Cuba."
News reports about the talks were sketchy in this nation where the government controls communication. Yet as the word spread, Cubans were debating whether the talks had come about as a result of strong leadership on Castro's part as his country faces its toughest economic challenge in three decades.
"It was a good plan on Castro's part if there is now going to be some dialogue," said Alberto Ruiz, Perez's grandson, who is in the military. "If what I hear is true, the United States was not allowing as many Cubans to visit as they had visas to give."
He also said he hoped the talks would lead to negotiations on other matters, such as the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
But Secretary of State Warren Christopher said Sunday that the United States and Cuba will discuss only refugees when mid-level talks resume this week.
"On other subjects, we really don't have very much to say to Castro. He knows what he needs to do," Christopher said Sunday on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation."
He also said the United States would respond in a "carefully calibrated way" should Cuban leader Fidel Castro take steps toward democracy, such as allowing free elections.