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Now That Cuban Refugee Policy Is Out, It's Time to Junk the Embargo Too

If the US dropped its sanctions against Castro, the dictator would likely fall

By Terry L. McCoy. Terry L. McCoya political scientist, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville. / May 26, 1995



WHILE the economic embargo has been the centerpiece of United States policy toward Cuba since 1959, granting automatic political asylum to Cubans fleeing the Castro dictatorship has been the second important component. The Clinton administration's May 2 termination of this preferential refugee status is a significant shift in our policy. It has also opened the door for a long overdue reconsideration of the embargo itself.

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Few policies have been as enduring as our Cuba policy. Eight US presidents -- four from each party -- have sought to undermine Fidel Castro Ruz by denying him access to US trade and investment and welcoming those fleeing his rule, both to give them refuge and embarrass the bearded one. Our cold war against Castro outlasted the cold war itself.

Yet even before Attorney General Janet Reno's announcement that most of the 21,000 Guantanamo refugees would be paroled into the United States while Cubans picked up at sea in the future would be repatriated, there were signs that the broad bipartisan consensus on Castro was fraying. Prominent conservatives, such as William Buckley Jr., called for repeal of the embargo, while behind the scenes business leaders who saw their European and Canadian competitors moving into a market only 90 miles away were quietly critical. Recently a high-ranking military commander publicly suggested that the armed forces were not happy with US policy on Cuba.

In retrospect, however, it was last August's refugee crisis that triggered what is becoming a full-blown debate on our Cuba policy. Faced with the prospect of another Mariel in the form of thousands of fleeing Cubans being picked up by US Coast Guard ships and brought to Key West for processing under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, the Clinton administration suspended access to the US for Cubans without visas.

Not only did an administration famous for waffling on key decisions back up its new policy by depositing 30,000 Cubans at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and informing them the only way to get to the US was to return to Cuba and apply for a visa, but the policy proved to be politically popular. In the November Republican sweep, it provided Florida's Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, who had pressed Clinton to stop the flow of refugees, his slim margin of victory.

Clinton's Guantanamo decision, subsequently formalized through negotiations with the Castro government (which agreed to discourage Cubans from fleeing by boat), also revealed that the Cuban-American community was losing some of its political clout to the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country. Governor Chiles's Republican opponent endorsed the steps taken by Clinton to deter Cuban refugees from landing in Florida.

The May 2 decision confirms that Cuban-Americans no longer have veto power over US policy toward Cuba. While it was clear that they would welcome the release of the Guantanamo refugees into the US, they could not be happy with the administration's decision to return future refugees (or ''immigrants,'' as they are now known) to Cuba, nor the way the decision was reached. The administration neither consulted Cuban-American leaders as it had in August nor did it balance the decision this time by tightening the embargo.

Florida's Cuban-Americans were effectively out of the picture. Now they are scrambling to get back into it, but their demonstrations in Miami seem to underline how isolated they are, and the Clinton administration shows no signs of backing down on repatriations.