Washington — As long as Americans set sail for Cuba in search of relatives, negotiations with the Castro government for an orderly, screened exodus have been ruled out by the US government.
Thus far, the United States has looked the other way while Cuban-Americans departed for Cuba and returned with boatloads of former countrymen. But the sad irony of the three-week-old sealift is that most of the boats are bringing strangers instead of long-separated family members.
Until now, US immigration policy has seemed in disarray. Refugee and customs officials had been trying to balance President Carter's "open heart and open arms" declaration May 5 with the outcry of other groups. The President promised a clearer policy statement this week. At this writing, details were unknown.
So far, these have been the government's chief considerations in the Cuban refugee crisis:
* Reassurance to Cuban-Americans, whose emotions have run high. The sealift was permitted because of concerns about maintaining civil order in Miami, according to a congressman involved in high-level consultations with the State Department on the matter. Some congressmen now are calling for a crackdown on boat operators.
* US standing among Latin American nations. "You cannot underestimate the destabilizing effect that this has had on Cuba and on Castro's relationship with other nations," Victor Palmieri, US coordinator for refugee affairs, told the House immigration subcommittee May 13. "It is a sign of disintegration in Cuba."
But two disturbing side-effects in the laissez-faire policy have emerged:
1. President Castro has used the sealift as an opportunity to empty prisons and mental institutions of social misfits. This has caused some alarm here. "I would suggest . . . that the danger of civil disorder is far greater if the flow is permitted to continue," Rep. Robert McClory (R) of Illinois said in a critical letter to President Carter this week.
2. Other refugee groups -- most notably the 20,000 to 40,000 Haitians now in this country -- feel they are being treated unfairly. Several black leaders have called this racial discrimination, since Haitians are darker-skinned than most Cubans. But Mr. Palmieri says there is a 20-year tradition in the US of receiving persons who flee Cuba. Moreover, he and the Justice Department point out that all refugees -- Haitians and Cubans alike -- will be interviewed, judged, and granted asylum on a case-by-case basis, according to the standards of the Refugee Act of 1980.
Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D) of New York, who chairs the immigration subcommittee, says it is "imperative" that the administration push for a sealift moratorium by Cuban-Americans, promptly followed by direct negotiations with the Cuban government on a screened, orderly airlift of refugees. Besides imposing stiff fines, the moratorium could be hastened as word spreads of frustrations experienced at Mariel, the Cuban port of embarkation for most of the refugees.
"It appears as though Castro is letting just enough boats out with relatives in them to keep Americans coming back while he fills them up with people he wants to get rid of," Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (R) of New York observed after returning from a tour of refugee camps. "He may, however, have overplayed his hand and helped to change the atmosphere of the Cuban-American approach to this thing."
But as of May 14, the refugees were still arriving at a rate of almost 3,000 a day, and more than 1,000 boats of varying sizes were waiting in Mariel Bay. Boat operators were being cited by US customs agents, and Spanish-language broadcasts in Miami were warning of no letdown in in enforcement of illegal entry statutes. But Federal Emergency Management Agency director John Macy says at least the refugees are arriving at a central point (Key West) and are being processed systematically rather than attempting to sneak ashore elsewhere on the Florida peninsula.
State Department officials say without the moratorium, Dr. Castro would have the advantage in any US-Cuban negotiations. He could, one congressman speculates, demand US concessions such as the relinquishment of the Guantanamo Bay military facility, diplomatic recognition, or the ending of trade sanctions.
"We are in a very difficult negotiating position," says Mr. Palmieri. "But I think you cannot underestimate the extent to which his [Dr. Castro's] regime is threatened. He has serious problems. I think he cannot continue indefinitely [ to allow the exodus]."
Mr. Palmieri says Cuban-Americans are gradually coming to see that Dr. Castro is using their shattered hopes of family reunification as a "form of guerrilla warfare that uses people as bullets" to divert world attention from the demoralization of his population.
Milagros mentioned another point that shows how little things, too, were irritating to some Cubans: "The TV programs were political."
In another tent, a group of men, most of them apparently in their 20s, carefully described some Cuban prices and salaries. There was almost unanimous agreement on the figures, since both are government controlled.
But there are often two government-set prices for the same item: a regular one and a lower one for those who work overtime.
Women work, one man explained: "It's a necessity."
What work do the refugees want in the US?
"I'll do anything," said one bare-chested young refugee. He said he is trained to be a mechanic and a gardener. He does not have any relatives in the US. His home, until last month, was a very poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana -- a neighborhood which, he said, was flooded sometimes more than once a year. "The water came up to here," he said, standing and holding a hand at about chest-high.
"That's all we want -- a job," said Luis, a black Cuban. He does not want to get rich, he says quietly, just earn "enough for the necessities."
Luis, 24, says he cannot remember when he last ate an orange.Later he shared a camp-issued can of fruit cocktail with this reporter as we sat in his tent in the early evening.
If all this sounds as though the main reason the refugees have come here is for a better life economically -- that is not the full story. Political and economic reasons intermingle in a web not easily untangled. That job will be up to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"For the moment, our main concern is our families," says one middle-aged Cuban whose wife and children are still in Cuba.
And while federal agencies rush to set up a third major refugee camp, at Indiantown Gap, Pa., (following the second one at Ft. Chaffee, Ark., there is no way of knowing how many more will come from Cuba -- or who want to come. Most refugees interviewed here say they have families they hope to bring to the US as soon as possible.