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Relatives Improvise to Communicate With Cuban Inmates : Bullhorns, Signs Get Out Message

December 02, 1987|DAVID TREADWELL and ROBERT GILLETTE | Times Staff Writers

ATLANTA — When Cuban exile leader Huber Matos Sr. was rebuffed by federal officials in his efforts to speak with rioting Cuban inmates at the Atlanta prison, he didn't take it lying down.

Like many other compatriots, supporters, friends and relatives of the prisoners, Matos turned to a small radio station here--WRFG-FM, "Radio Free Georgia."

For some time, WRFG has been broadcasting a special program on Tuesday and Saturday nights for the Cuban detainees in the Atlanta penitentiary. After the uprising began last week, the station became one of the many conduits outsiders used to get around the tight federal restrictions on the flow of information to and from the Cubans.

Cuban Flag Smuggled In

Bullhorns, placards, portable police radio scanners and even the police themselves have all been pressed into service. An Atlanta police lieutenant who asked to remain unidentified boasts that he arranged for a Cuban flag to be smuggled to the prisoners Sunday, out of sympathy for their plight.

The inmates have been no less resourceful in thwarting the government's information blockade. They have employed banners, kites, public address systems and two-way radios to get their message to the outside world.

The two-way radios, apparently seized from guards in the early stages of the revolt, were used most effectively on Saturday night and early Sunday morning, when the inmates broadcast a long set of demands and announced that four of the 94 hostages then being held would be released.

As the prisoners broadcast their demands, reporters stationed across the street from the 85-year-old prison in a kind of makeshift "press row" listened in on scanners. They also taped the transmissions, had them translated and promptly added the late-breaking demands to their news reports of the day's events.

Supporters, friends and relatives of the inmates, who routinely mingle with press across from the prison, eavesdropped on the reporters' scanners so that they could get the news too.

It was more than 12 hours before federal officials publicly acknowledged having received their own copy of the demands.

Federal authorities, dealing with a volatile situation and engaged in negotiations fraught with linguistic and cultural difficulties, have been hard-nosed in managing the flow of information.

"As a general rule, it is never advisable to discuss terms of sensitive negotiations with you," Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten told reporters Monday at one of the routine, open-air briefings across from the prison.

"They (the negotiations) will have the best chance to succeed only if those discussions are carried on directly with the inmates," he added. "The more we involve you all in the process, the more the danger is of something taking a bad bounce."

As part of their negotiation strategy, federal officials also have been highly selective about whom they will allow inside the prison to aid in the discussions with the inmates.

Congressman Turned Away

For example, Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a liberal Atlanta congressman who has championed the Cuban detainees' cause on Capitol Hill since his election last year, has been repeatedly spurned by federal officials in his efforts to meet with the inmates.

"I think they feel that they couldn't control or ride herd over John," said a Justice Department official not directly involved in the negotiations who requested anonymity.

Last Friday, a delegation of Cuban-born officials and community leaders from Miami was similarly turned back. The delegation included Cuban exile leader Matos and Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, who had even offered to trade places with the hostages.

Matos went on the air the following night on WRFG to get his message through. The station, which is supported by private sponsors and has a 50-mile broadcasting radius, abandoned its usual Latino programming and opened the mike to a string of community activists, social workers and relatives of inmates.

Among them was Lily Delgado, a Roman Catholic church volunteer who has spent the last 15 months working at the Atlanta prison. "Tonight, we've been asking for the release of the hostages to prove to the outside world that these men aren't all violent," she said on the air. "They're just men seeking justice. We're praying for them and the hostages. We're praying the federal government will do what is right."

Appeals Cited in Releases

Ernesto Perez, a volunteer disc jockey at WRFG who moderated the program, says that he believes the appeals played a key role in the decision later by inmates to release four of their hostages as a sign of good faith.

The situation for outsiders and prisoners was different at the federal detention facility in Oakdale, La. The press and the public were barred from gathering near the prison. Reporters, for example, were sent to a media center set up about a mile away in the local Lions Club youth center.

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