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Wednesday, August 4, 1999 Published at 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK

World: Americas

Castro slams US immigration policy

Castro: US "unscrupulously made a joke of the accords we signed,"

By Tom Gibb in Havana

President Fidel Castro of Cuba has fiercely criticised the United States for not doing its part to stop the growing number of Cubans leaving the island.

[ image: These Cuban immigrants had to brave the US Coastuguard before reaching Florida]
These Cuban immigrants had to brave the US Coastuguard before reaching Florida
Speaking at a political rally, President Castro said that recent events in the United States were undermining an agreement to stop illegal immigration from Cuba.

Under the US-Cuba Migration Accord signed four years ago, anyone caught at sea trying to cross the Straits of Florida is now sent back to the island.

But the US law gives automatic US residency to Cubans who manage to reach US soil. Unless this is taken away, Mr Castro said, the incentive for illegal immigration remains.

In the last six months the numbers of Cubans leaving - mostly in high-speed launches which come over from Florida - has tripled.

Life sentences

Mr Castro said that the Cuban authorities had captured more than 40 Florida-based smugglers, who charge up to $10,000 a head to take people off the island.

He said they should be returned to the United States for severe punishment.

[ image: Thousands turned out to hear the president's six-hour speech]
Thousands turned out to hear the president's six-hour speech
But at the same time he criticised the leniency of Florida courts, where juries tend to be sympathetic to the smugglers.

He said two of those being held, whose boats sank last month drowning one of the passengers, would be tried on the island, where they could face life sentences.

Finally, he accused President Clinton of being blackmailed by what he called a Mafia of Cuban-American leaders who he said would like to destroy US-Cuban cooperation over migration.

For their part, Clinton administration officials have repeatedly said they are committed to continue cooperating with Cuba to stop illegal immigration.

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