Cuba's refugee 'Dunkirk': Castro hopes it will embarrass the US

Cuban President Fidel Castro has maneuvered cunningly to get an embarrassing monkey off his back -- the thousands of his compatriots who are so obviously dissatisfied with his rule that they want to leave Cuba.

He is now trying put the monkey on the back of the US.

At first he tried to put it on the back of Peru, whose Havana embassy had become a haven for up to 10,000 refugees. Next he tried to put the monkey on the back of Costa Rica, which served as the initial staging ground for an airlift of the refugees to destinations elsewhere in the Americans. And now his target is the US.

But apparently he had not reckoned with the Cuban-American population of Miami and southern Florida.

When the airlift out of Havana to Costa Rica was stalled -- on President Castro's orders -- Cuban-Americans in southern Florida started a Dunkirk-like evacuation shuttle of their own with small boats. The embarrassment just would not go away. It simply got bigger, with the spotlight of world attention on these thousands of his countrymen who were saying so clearly that they wanted to escape from what they see as Castro's Cuba prison.

Now comes the latest twist in yet another nimble Castro exercise to squeeze out of a tight corner. Instead of greeting the boats from Miami and Key West with machine-gun fire or even simple arrest, the Cuban authorities are making it easy for them to pick up their human cargoes, particularly at the north Cuban port of Mariel, only 90 miles from the Florida Keys.

Apparently Dr. Castro calculates that:

1. In the increasingly difficult economic situation in Cuba, he is better rid at this time of those most disaffected against his regime, of the most likely to be troublemakers.

2. The sudden flood of refugees from Cuba into the Miami area, where there are well over half a million Cubans, could cause such disruption that the US will end up more embarrassed than Cuba. And if the US takes stern measures to punish, arrest or turn away the refugees or their ferriers, it will be the American, not the Cuban authorities, getting world publicity as cruel and heartless.

The US State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service have already issued warnings that boat captains face arrest if their passengers do not have valid US visas. The Coast Guard in the Miami area is relaying the same message by radio to boats at sea between Cuba and Florida.* (There are reports, incidentally, that some boat captains are motivated less by altruism than by the desire to make money.)

But there is no sign that the warnings are having any effect. Local Cuban-Americans are said to support the ferry service, to believe that a few thousand more Cubans can be absorbed without major problems in the Miami area, and to hope that the US warnings are simply for the record.

Cuba's poorest poor still probably feel better off than they did under right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista, whom Dr. Castro overthrew over 20 years ago. The standard of living under Dr. Castro was disparagingly described as at "near-workhouse" level by the London weekly the Economist earlier this year. But schooling and health services are better and more widely available than ever before.

This year has not started auspiciously for the Cuban leader. Among his setbacks:

* The hoped-for triumph of his chairmanship of the nonaligned movement, which began last summer, was quickly marred by his Soviet patron's invasion of Afghanistan, a member of the movement.

* Cuban military participation in civil wars in Africa at the side of Soviet-backed governments (as in Angola and Ethiopia) has not brought outright triumph to those governments. Rather, for Cuba, it has brought everlengthening casualty lists for families back home.

* The economic and security situation is deteriorating, and his Soviet advisers have not been able to ward it off. Indeed, hard-line Soviet influence may have worsened an already worsening situation. In January, Dr. Castro admitted his economic woes in unusually frank terms and simultaneously took over personal responsibility for the ministries of the interior, health, and culture.

Latin American correspondent James Nelson Goodsell reports from Mexico City:

The spectacular human drama in Cuba suggests just how divided the Cuban "family" remains after 21 years of Castro rule.

There can be no mistaking this division.* Those at the Peruvian Embassy compound represent a sizable portion of the Cuban people -- from all classes -- who want to get off their island and, for the most part, go to the United States.

Those who want to get leave are probably far fewer than anti-Castro forces claim, and many more than the Cuban government is willing to admit.

The actual total may be as many as 2 million in a population of 9 million.

The spotlight played on the embassy-compound drama throughout the world is obviously an embarrassment to the Cuban govvernment and to Dr. Castro personally.

At the same time, however, the situation at the embassy and what it represents needs to be measured against the unswerving support that Dr. Castro enjoys among other millions of Cubans.

If free elections were held in Cuba today, most Cubanologists are convinced President Castro would win hands down. During the 1960s, it was suggested that he could count on the active support of perhaps 60 to 65 percent of the Cuban population. That percentage may have fallen somewhat, but it is still high.

This massive and continuing outpouring of support for Dr. Castro has often been lost sight of as the flow of Cuban exiles mounted to more than 1.5 million during the past 21 years.* The thousands at the Peruvian Embassy and the trickle from their numbers that have already gone by air to Costa Rica and Spain and by boat to the US are only the latest in this continuing flow of Cubans who have chosen exile rather than life under Castro rule.

Close to 850,000 of these Cubans settled in the US since 1959, mainly in Florida and along the US East Coast. Other tens of thousands went to Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking parts of the New World. Still others went to Europe, particularly to Spain, france, and Portugal.

This tremendous flow has led to divisions not only in the Cuban "family" but also within individual families. Mothers and fathers left their children behind; children left parents; brothers and sisters separated, and husbands and wives did also.

But for Dr. Castro, there was purpose in the exile flow. It cut back sharply on discontent at home. In fact, some Cubanologists maintain that the Castro government has regularly defused potentially explosive homefront situations and actually enhanced support by letting the discontented leave.

Whether it was the flow of consumer goods to Cuba over the past 16 months brought by visiting Cuban exiles, as some early analyses indicated, or simply a basic human yearning for something better than Cuba currently offers is an unanswered question.

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