US, Cuba Stanch the Refugee Flow

Officials meet this week in New York to review refugee pact

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THERE'S an unusual view in the azure waters off south Florida these days: No rickety rafts. No people clinging to wooden boats. No Cubans risking their lives to try to get to the United States.

In fact, more than a month has passed since the US Coast Guard has picked up any Cubans in the Florida Straits - for the first time in five years.

The main reason for the halt thus far seems to be colder weather. But Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz has also taken strong action to shut off his country's border, as stipulated by a Sept. 9 US-Cuban agreement to stop the exodus. And some Cubans have been deterred by the Clinton administration policy to send rafters to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, instead of US shores.

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Whether Cubans will continue to stay off the high seas remains uncertain, but for now South Florida residents and leaders of the Cuban-exile community here are taking respite from the deluge that threatened to overwhelm their state. And Clinton officials are watching the seas to determine if their policy is working or not.

``Right now the weather presumably is discouraging Cubans from attempting to leave their country,'' says a State Department official, who requests anonymity. ``That helps the Cuban government's border guards in preventing people from leaving Cuba.''

For its part, the Cuban-exile community in Miami is pleased with the halt in refugees, but community leaders don't like the fact that the Clinton administration negotiated with the Cuban government and lost what they saw as an opportunity to oust Castro.

``Since day No. 1 we have been opposed to [rafters crossing the Florida straits.] We are not recommending that voyage,'' says Jose Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue, a group that flies over the Florida Straits looking for Cuban rafters. ``The only solution is a change in Cuba.''

The halt of refugees also comes as good news for Florida's Gov. Lawton Chiles (D), who lost a lawsuit against the federal government to collect $1.5 billion spent on services for illegal immigrants. A federal judge in Miami dismissed the suit last month, saying the issue was political and beyond the court's authority.

The deluge began in earnest last August, when Cuban leader Mr. Castro opened his country's borders for disaffected citizens to leave. Initially, Cuban-exile leaders here thought it was a sign that the communist government in Havana was on the verge of collapsing. They urged President Clinton to deliver the knockout blow.

Exile leaders went along when the president scrapped preferential treatment for Cuban asylum-seekers and began detaining Cuban refugees in ``safe havens''; when he abolished commercial flights to Cuba; and when he stopped money transfers from exiles to relatives back home to deny Castro foreign exchange.

But exiles wanted more, including a naval blockade similar to one that was enforced against Haiti's military junta. They were ignored on these points.

Community leaders say the 29,000 Cubans detained at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo and in the Panama Canal Zone are having a deterring effect on potential rafters in Cuba, but only temporarily. ``When the weather gets better and the repression continues, people will continue to leave the island,'' Mr. Basulto says.

The September pact between Washington and Havana will receive more scrutiny this week as US and Cuban officials meet in New York to review compliance. In the accord, Castro agreed to plug up his borders if the US increased the number of visas for legal immigration from 3,000 to 20,000 a year. In addition, the US promised to take measures to stop Cuban government aircraft and boats from being hijacked to Florida.

The Cuban American National Foundation has offered to cover the costs of relocating all 29,000 rafters to the US and to cover their expenses for one year. After that, US law allow the refugees to apply for green cards. The government has not taken up the group's offer.

State Department officials say that the refugees will remain in detention indefinitely. The government announced last week that 8,000 rafters detained in Panama will be transferred back to Guantanamo, where there are 21,000.

In Cuba, meanwhile, thousands of Cuban refugees who returned to Cuba from Guantanamo may just be waiting for a change in weather, or a change of mind by Havana.

``As long as long as it is to the advantage of the government of Cuba,'' the State Department official says, ``the government of Cuba will continue to prevent Cubans from leaving Cuba illegally.''

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