Letting Cubans emigrate

BY September's end, some 68 political prisoners from Cuba will emigrate to the United States. It is a small band, compared with the close to 3,000 other political prisoners and several thousand more members of families divided between Cuba and the US who are waiting to emigrate to the US. As a group, these are not just people who think the US would be an improved place to live. Many of them have legal and moral grounds for seeking US entry. Promises to admit the prisoner group date back to the Carter administration. Many in the group are elderly and strongly anti-communist. All have been in jail for at least 10 years. Among families seeking to be reunited, often the husband is a legal US resident and has filed immigration papers for his family to join him.

Cuban emigration to the US stopped abruptly after the much-publicized Mariel boatlift of 1980, when 125,000 Cubans emigrated to the US. In December 1984 the two countries agreed to let the US send back 2,743 known criminals and mental patients from the Mariel group in exchange for US entry for Cuba's political prisoners and up to 20,000 regular immigrants a year.

But Fidel Castro abruptly suspended the accord five months later when Washington launched Radio Mart'i, a Voice of America station, to beam news, features, and music to Cuba.

At the time, the US said it had no objection to Havana's launching of a similar broadcasting effort beamed to this country. At US-Cuban talks in Mexico City last July, aimed at reviving the immigration accord, Cuba's request to be assigned three AM frequencies was branded ``outrageous'' by US officials.

Last month the Reagan administration tightened its longtime trade embargo against Cuba by cracking down on indirect, third-country shipments of US goods to Cuba. The new package also made it more difficult for Cubans to get visas to the US from third countries.

The US may well want to maintain its wariness in dealing with Castro's Cuba. But Washington's foot-dragging, particularly on immigration clearances of political prisoners, remains mystifying.

State Department officials insist the slow clearance pace is intended to keep some leverage for the eventual return to Cuba of Mariel ``excludables.'' Even hard-liners against Cuba say this policy most hurts ``the prisoners of conscience.'' The Cuban-American community in Florida seems not to care as long as President Reagan regularly criticizes Dr. Castro.

To break the immigration impasse, the US should look again at Cuba's radio request. Some juggling of US stations would be required to assign Havana one AM frequency, but it can be done.

In the meantime, Washington should speed up its processing of immigration applications from Cuban political prisoners and find ways, in part by easing the third-country immigration curbs, to reunite divided families and resume the normal immigration flow. Such actions are in order for a nation devoted to freedom and keeping its word.

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