OAKDALE, La. — A secret deal to free 26 hostages held by rebellious Cuban inmates collapsed at the last minute Friday, and officials held out little hope of a swift end to the stalemate.
Negotiators for the government and inmates at the Federal Detention Center here shook hands on a deal Thanksgiving night. But when they met to sign the agreement Friday, the roughly 1,000 Cubans apparently balked.
Of the 28 hostages seized last Saturday, one was released Thursday night and a second was evacuated Friday after being attacked by a mental patient.
The remaining 26 hostages, although not seen Friday, were unharmed, and "no ultimatums" were issued, according to Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), who has been monitoring the talks.
At the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, meanwhile, where more than 1,100 other Cuban detainees held 94 hostages, officials adopted a tough new tone Friday after negotiations between inmates and officials broke down without bringing about any progress toward resolution of the five-day-old prison uprising.
Talks between three inmate spokesmen and three prominent Cuban refugees acting as mediators had appeared likely to bring about the release of up to 50 of the Atlanta hostages Thursday night in return for permission for the inmates to hold a news conference. But that proposal was rejected by a majority of the inmates. Those face-to-face talks were not resumed Friday, and there was only intermittent telephone conversation between inmates and FBI negotiators.
Breaux blamed the breakdown in the Louisiana negotiations on dissension within the Cuban ranks.
"The four (Cuban) negotiators have to represent more than 900 inmates--it's worse than the United Nations," Breaux said.
The senator also complained that the Cubans kept presenting additional demands.
"The ball is back in their court," he said. "It's time they realize that there is only so far we can go as far as offers are concerned.
"I don't want them to ask for a new house and 40 acres and a tractor," Breaux said.
The detainees, however, appeared to have a different explanation. After talks broke off, a group of the Cubans paraded around the front of the prison compound with a banner: "U.S. Govt, Please allow us to speak with someone we can trust who understands our lang."
Language Problems Denied
Federal officials have denied there is any language barrier, although numerous signs displayed throughout the week in the prison yard were written in broken, sometimes almost incomprehensible English. The government's offer was presented to the inmates in English, and the translators involved in the delicate negotiations all work for the government.
Officials have refused to detail either the Cubans' demands or the government's responses.
Breaux said that "the guts" of the deal were amnesty for the riot, a moratorium on deportations to Cuba and individual review of the detainees' cases.
The breakdown at Oakdale came after a day of high hopes that began with Cuban detainees laying down their makeshift weapons, circling an American flag and joining hands in prayer as their four representatives entered the negotiating room to supposedly sign the agreement.
About 40 minutes later, the four Cuban negotiators left and were seen in a heated discussion with fellow inmates in the burned-out prison yard. The argument ended with one detainee snatching up his weapon and stalking off.
Banner Offers Thanks
A banner was hung from the ruins of a dormitory: "Citizens of U.S. Thank You for Your Help and Prayers. We Do Not Want To Blow It." Negotiators for the two sides met again briefly. Then the talks ended.
Late Friday, the Cubans put up a new sign demanding "Archbishop San Roman" as a legal representative and "live national press" as a condition for signing an agreement. The reference was apparently to Agustin Roman, the auxiliary bishop for the Roman Catholic Church in Miami.
The Justice Department's spokesman in Oakdale, Mark K. Sheehan, said, however, that there were "no plans" to involve Bishop Roman in the negotiations and that "there is no time set" for the resumption of talks with the inmates.
Families of the hostages, who spent the morning in preparation for a celebration, spent the afternoon in stunned disappointment. In the church hall, where they have kept a vigil since the siege began, the relatives still clutched bouquets of yellow balloons they had planned to release over this tiny town to mark a homecoming.
"I think it's heartbreaking for the hostages and for the Cubans, and more so for the families that's waiting out here," said Linda Robinson, sister-in-law of one of the hostages.
The families were wracked by "tension, anxiety, hurt and pain," she said.
The day began on a cooperative note when inmates rescued a hostage who had been stabbed by one of the mental patients incarcerated at the center.