Four Americans have been released from prison in Cuba, where they were being held on charges of drug trafficking and illegal entry into Cuban waters, the State Department said yesterday.
Arriving in Miami last night were Vincent Simone of Highland, N.Y., Robert Bassett of Davie, Fla., Robert Kovick of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and William Mahaney of Margate, Fla.
"Hello, America," Kovick said after stepping off a chartered jet at the Miami airport. "I never lost hope."
Kovick, looking fit, said he hoped their release would signal "further cooperation with the Cuban government so that the other prisoners can be released."
Dean Fischer, a State Department spokesman, said the four were released through the efforts of three New York congressmen, Democrat Robert Garcia and Republicans Benjamin A. Gilman and Hamilton Fish Jr.
The three congressmen were in Havana earlier this week on what a spokesman in Garcia's office described as a "humanitarian" mission. The arrangements for release of the four Americans was made then.
Fischer said the four had been in prison for less than a year after being "charged and convicted for drug trafficking and illegal entry into Cuban waters." All four men had denied the charges, and authorities said none of them faces charges in the United States.
"The administration was not involved with this," he said. "The men were released as a gesture in response to a request by members of Congress."
Mahaney said his spirits picked up when he met with the congressmen. "We . . . were advised that through their efforts and the World Church Organization that we would be released," he said. "We were told within 48 hours. I knew I would be coming home. It was outstanding the way my family pursued my release."
Simone and Bassett left with relatives after leaving the plane and did not speak with reporters.
Fischer said the State Department knows of 19 Americans still in prison in Cuba. He said U.S. officials have had consular access to the 13 Americans, out of the 19, who do not hold dual citizenship. He said he didn't know why the Americans were being held.
Before the announcement of the prisoners' release, Garcia said Cuban President Fidel Castro had, at the urging of the congressmen, released Andres Rodriguez Hernandez, who was deported to Cuba Jan. 15 after being denied asylum in the United States. "We personally asked Mr. Castro not to prosecute or persecute this young man. The president assured us his government would be lenient," Garcia said.
Rodriguez was the first Cuban immigrant to be deported to his homeland in 23 years. His deportation sparked protests in Miami's Cuban exile communities. Police used tear gas and arrested 34 people Saturday night.
In an interview with The Miami Herald in his mother's apartment in Havana, Rodriguez said, "I wanted a job and a house and a car."
Rodriguez said he still was confused by what happened after Jan. 9, when he stowed away on a Panamanian freighter bound for Miami.
"Please tell the Cubans in Miami from the bottom of my heart how grateful I am for their support," he said, "but tell them I am home and that I am safe and sound."
"My desire to travel is finished. Not to the United States, not anywhere. I will stay in Cuba, work and study and start my life again. I am only 20."
Rodriguez was returned to Cuba after the State Department ruled he failed to qualify under a 1980 federal law that requires refugees to prove "a well-founded fear of political persecution."
"In Miami at first, I was surprised at how well they received me," he said. "It was Senor Rodriguez this and Senor Rodriguez that and then, like a great blow, it suddenly was Senor Rodriguez back to Havana."
Rodriguez said his astonishment at being freed from jail in Cuba was equal to his surprise at being deported. Cuban authorities Wednesday dropped illegal exit charges that could have sent him to jail for up to four years.