U.S. entry for hundreds of Cuban political prisoners has been delayed by lengthy Justice Department screening to determine if the former prisoners pose security risks as possible Cuban spies or terrorists.
According to a group of Cuban exiles and high-level Roman Catholic officials pressing to speed the screening process, it could take at least 10 years for all Cuba's 3,000 political prisoners to be cleared for U.S. admission at the current rate.
In meetings Monday with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Justice Department officials, the group, including Archbishop Edward McCarthy of Miami, exiled Cuban Bishop Eduardo Boza and former prisoner Tony Cuesta, called for an accelerated "humanitarian" parole program similar to the one that allowed as many as 1,000 Cubans a week to enter the United States during the early 1960s.
They said they feared that if the United States took too long in approving the prisoners for immigration, the Cuban government would withdraw its offer to release them.
Following repeated U.S. and international criticism of the number and status of political prisoners in Cuba, President Fidel Castro offered in late August to release the prisoners to the United States as a gesture toward establishing normal relations with the large Cuban with community here.
While the Cuban government has said that as many as 3,000 could be eligible for immigration, it has so far handed over to U.S. authorities the names of 216 political prisoners, some of whom already have served their terms and have been released in Cuba. With dependents included, the list comes to more than 700.
Of 47 prisoners interviewed all but one have been cleared for entry. They arrived in Miami by chartered flight Oct. 21
Each prisoner and 33 dependents who accompanied them were individually interviewed in Havana by a team of FBI, Justice Department, State Department and Immigration Service officials. The interview reports were then turned over to Attorney General Griffin Bell, who personally approved them for acceptance in the U.S. immigration parole program.
The church and exile group, which was formed under the auspices of Sen. Richard Stone (D-Fla.), said that the holdup in aproving more prisoners was on the U.S. side rather than Cuba's. They said that Associate Attorney General Michael J. Egan told them it was doubtful the Justice Department could process more than 50 prisoners a month.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Egan said "it was always understood that we'd interview people before taking them in. We have been doing that in a very deliberate manner."
Egan said careful screening was necessary because "the lists (of prisoners) have been furnished by the Cuban government, which hasn't been looked on as a great friend of the United States in recent years."
"We want to be certain we're getting what we think we're geting, true political prisoners," Egan said.
Egan said Vietnamese "boat people" - refugees from that country's communist government - had not been admitted any faster. Last spring, however, Congress authorized the admission of 25,000 of the Vietnamese for the year ending next May. State Department officials said that approximately 3,500 are in the United States, with the rest still in refugee camps in Asia and the Pacific.
In September, following Castro's offer, Congress approved a similar parole program for an initial 1,000 Cuban political prisoners with the stipulation based on security fears, that Bell personally approve each of them individually. The parole process is separate from a repatriation program which is admitting persons holding dual Cuban-American citizenship.
While they said they wanted to avoid entering into the "politics" of Cuban-U.S. relations, the church and exile group questioned the long decision-making process and the fact that more than six weeks passed between the Havana visit of the first investigating team - which handled the initial 47 prisoners - and the second, which left for Cuba last night.
Spokesman for the State Department, whose interest section in Havana has initial responsibility for screening the prisoner lists, said ultimate approval rests with the Justice Department and the State Department has little control over the process.
One well informed source said the delay was in the FBI. An FBI spokesman yesterday referred all questions back to the Justice Department but said, "We're not dragging our feet on this operation."
John McCarthy, director of migration and refugee services for the U.S. Catholic Conference, said the church would charter planes to get the prisoners out. "It won't cost the U.S. government a penny. We'll give them homes and find them jobs," he said.
Archbishop McCarthy, whose Miami, diocese processed the U.S. entry thousands of Cuban exiles in the early 1960s, said that many on the prisoner list participated, in some cases along with the CIA, in anti-Castro operations that led to their arrest.
"These people are our friends," McCarthy said: "They are the ones who sacrificed everything. Castro has plenty of agents in Miami already."