MIAMI — DESPITE the Clinton administration's decision last week to deny them entry to the United States, Cuban refugees continue to flee the island in overwhelming numbers.
The Coast Guard plucked 3,096 refugees from rafts and other small vessels Wednesday, the second largest one-day total since the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
All the refugees were transferred to Coast Guard cutters to begin the 30-hour voyage to the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - the only ``safe haven'' now available. Administration officials have said the detention of the Cubans at Guantanamo is indefinite. White House spokesman Jeff Eller traveled to Miami Wednesday with other senior administration officials to make this point clear. (Rep. Menendez on how to stem refugee flow, Page 7.)
After meeting with Cuban-American leaders and state and local officials, Mr. Eller said flatly, ``These people [at Guantanamo] will not be allowed to enter the US. Not today, not tomorrow. They will remain there until there's a Democratic government in Cuba. This policy will not change.''
President Clinton's change from accepting all Cubans was designed both to dissuade Cubans from leaving the island and to apply pressure on President Fidel Castro Ruz to stop the exodus by increasing the economic burden on his government. Neither strategy seems to be working.
Many Cuban exiles, refugee advocates, and academics agree that Mr. Clinton's past actions have created this situation. Inasmuch as there have been policy shifts by the president in other foreign-policy arenas - such as Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina - they say this has created a belief, even among Cuban boat people, that the president's threats lack credibilty.
At the Krome Federal Detention Center west of Miami, about 600 Cubans remain behind barbed wire. These Cubans made it to south Florida just as Clinton's new policy went into effect. Among the Cuban Americans who sweltered outside the gates waiting to see relatives inside, there was a feeling that their loved ones would soon be released.
Giovanni Diaz drove down to Krome from Sarasota, Fla., to see an aunt he's never met. He says the new policy has not and will not deter Cubans from fleeing.
``The Cubans now on the island know about the policy change. They hear it all the time on the radio,'' Mr. Diaz says, referring to Radio Marti, the US government's station that broadcasts to Cuba. ``But that's not stopping them. They all think Clinton will change it.''
As for the 65,000 Cubans that Guantanamo may eventually house, the exile community says it is almost a given that these refugees will also be reunited with relatives in south Florida.
DETAINEES say the exodus will continue because the president's resolve is questioned in Cuba itself.
``Sooner or later Clinton will let us out,'' says Alfredo Castillo Jimenez, who has been living at Krome since his 14-foot raft landed in Key West last Saturday.
Many Cuban exiles cite the situation in Haiti for their optimism. Jose Rodriguez reasons, ``If President Clinton can change his policy concerning Haiti five or six times - then he's bound to do that here.'' That sentiment is echoed by leaders in Miami's Haitian community, who have been closely watching the situation in Cuba.
Steve Forester, lead attorney at the Haitian Refugee Center, says the political clout of the Cuban American community will bring about another change in the way Cubans are treated.
``This is a president who only thinks in terms of politics,'' Mr. Forester says. ``His foreign policy is made on the run. He's flying by the seat of his pants.''
The Cuban crisis and solutions to it are further complicated by the differences between Haitian and Cuban refugees, despite attempts by the administration to try to level the playing field between the two groups. Unlike the situation with Haiti, the US has no repatriation treaty with Cuba.
The president's safe-haven approach to the two groups of refugees creates another problem. The safe-haven concept is designed to protect refugees on a temporary basis. But President Castro has ruled Cuba for 35 years, and a 32-year-old US economic embargo has not ousted him from power.
These issues are not concerns to the rafters, who ignore the pleas of Radio Marti. Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, says the president's problem is twofold.
``The refugees are convinced that their relatives in Miami will somehow arrange for them to be moved from the tent cities at Guantanamo to south Florida,'' Mr. Perez says, ``and the president's threats are viewed by them as empty ones.''