The nightmarish conditions of thousands of Cubans who sought asylum over the weekend in the Peruvian Embassy compound in Havana improved today when Cuban authorities began to supply food and water to visa-seekers who had been deprived of it for 48 hours under a hot tropical sun.
But tensions remained high among the crowd inside, although Cuban President Fidel Castro went to the embassy to assure the estimated 10,000 people desiring to leave Cuba that they would be allowed to depart when another country grants them entry.
"Everything will be arranged within five minutes," once Peru signals its inclination to take the refugees, said one government official.
In an effort to ease the conditions inside, the Cuban government offered special passes to the would-be emigrants, entitling the holders to leave the compound and return if Peru grants them entry visas. But most of the refugees rejected the passes because they were afraid the police would prevent them from returning.
The refugee inundation of the embassy apparently was triggered by a chain of events that started last Tuesday, when six Cubans seeking asylum crashed their bus into the embassy grounds. Police opened fire on the gate-crashers and a police officer was killed in the crossfire. On Friday, Cuban authorities withdrew guards stationed outside the half-acre compound and Saturday they announced that those seeking asylum would be allowed to leave.
The cuban offer of safe passage out of the country was viewed as a reversal of the recent policy of the Castro government in which authorizations to leave Cuba was limited to political prisoners and the immediate families of Cuban exiles.
Today, the embassy was again guarded by police and armed security guards and trucks filled with uniformed soldiers were parked on the streets.
Refugees who went in and out of the embassy were jeered outside by pro-Castro Cubans, including groups of children who shouted, "gusanos, gusanos," which means worms, after them.
In Lima, the Peruvian government and private relief agencies began efforts to help the Cubans camping inside the embassy compound.
The Peruvian Red Cross said it would ship 20 tons of canned milk along with medicine and canned meat, on the first available flight to Havana. The Red Cross also is recruiting doctors and nurses to provide medical care for the refugees.
Peruvian Foreign Minister Arturo Garcia y Garcia told a press conference Sunday night that Peru alone could not be expected to cope with such a large number of people and called for cooperation from the international Red Cross and the Geneva-based U.N. Commission for Refugees.
The Peruvian Foreign Ministry also announced that the five nations in the Andrean Pact, which also includes Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia, will hold an emergency meeting Wednesday in Lima to consider evacuation of Cubans trying to leave Havana.
Venezuela, whose embassy in Havana also housed refugees, has sided with Peru and issued a statement supporting the Peruvian stand on the right of asylum.
The Peruvian government has repeatedly stated that the situation at the embassy was created by the Cuban government, by its decision to withdraw guard protection in violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic protocol.
A lengthy editorial in the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma stated that Havana will "with pleasure" authorize the departure of those seeking visas to emigrate.
According to Granma, the majority of people seeking refuge at the embassy are "delinquents, lumpenproletarians, antisocial and parasitic elements."
"Rarely has an assembly of people quite as 'choice' been seen in a single place, to judge by their clothing and language," the paper said, adding the group included many homosexuals.
Citing the "inability" of Peruvian Embassy officials to provide for the thousands inside the compound, Cuba took over the task of caring for the refugees.
The Cuban Red Cross installed an embergency post inside the embassy and mustered personnel to care for the many pregnant women, children and old people who are among those seeking refuge.
As food and water was being carried into the compound, refugees were permitted to go home to fetch cigarettes and other provisions. However, only one-fifth of the refugees took advantage of the free passage to and from the embassy compound.