April 19, 2000

Cuban Thugs Attacked Them, Exile Protesters Say Wednesday, April 19, 2000

An alleged police-state type assault on anti-Castro Cubans, protesting in front of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, has infuriated exile groups and members of Congress and is being investigated by District of Columbia police.

The protesters told police they were set upon by thuggish Cuban diplomats last Friday evening while they were peacefully demonstrating on the sidewalk in front of the office which represents Cuban interests in the United States.

Calling the incident "intolerable," the State Department has demanded that the Cuban government explain what happened, while the Cuban government has filed a counter demand that the district police provide better protection for its diplomats.

According to Secret Service spokesman John Tomlinson, the Friday incident took place around 7:30 p.m., when "a group of individuals that exited the Interests Section itself came outside and apparently had a verbal altercation" with demonstrators.

"That verbal altercation escalated," he said. "Uniform division officers that were on site ... interceded and separated the parties and reestablished control." Tomlinson said no arrests were made and there were no injuries reported at the time. But he said the response of officers on the scene was being reviewed by headquarters.

The district police spokesman, Sgt. Joe Gentile, said that detectives also were investigating the incident to "see if there is enough evidence or information available to obtain an arrest warrant."

On Monday, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas wrote a letter to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright demanding that the United States "forcefully protest" to the Cuban government, and Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) also wrote to both Albright and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh asking for "a fair review of the incident."

In an effort to call public attention to the incident, by what he called common criminals shielded by diplomatic immunity, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo flew to Washington and called a news conference across the street from where it occurred.

Accompanied by four of the demonstrators involved in the scuffle, Carollo said he also came to defend the reputation of South Florida's Cuban Americans, who he charged had been unfairly characterized by the news media as violence-prone and politically incorrect.

The demonstrators told reporters that the assault on them was unprovoked. Said Estrella Carie Noda, a federal employee in Key West, Fla., she was "tossed into the air. I was pummeled."

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a Catholic University law school student, said he was punched twice in the face and hit in the chest and that his portable bullhorn was taken from him and smashed to the sidewalk.

"I had been speaking on the mike. We were speaking not out of hate ... we were speaking out of love and fraternity," he said. "We did not touch; we did not shove."

Calling it "a very serious matter," the State Department demanded an explanation of the incident during a meeting with Cuban diplomats.

But Luis Fernandez, a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section charged that "elements hostile to our country" were "performing provocative acts against the integrity and dignity of our diplomat mission" adding that they had "thrown objects through our fence and also insulted our women and children." He refused to describe the actions of the Cubans involved in the incident, or even to identify who they were.

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