IN April 1980, when Cuban President Fidel Castro flung the port of Mariel open and invited all who wanted to leave to do so, Cuban Americans in Miami jumped at the chance to rescue relatives by boat. Five months later, when Castro shut the door, 125,266 Cubans had arrived in South Florida in what became known as the ``Mariel boatlift.''
Now, with Castro again threatening to unleash a similar flood of boat people to Florida to quell growing internal dissent and to force the United States to lift a trade embargo, the response in the Cuban exile community here is quite different.
``We will not allow another Mariel boatlift to happen,'' said Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, a Cuban American.
The US is taking Castro's threat seriously. US Attorney General Janet Reno warned that anyone caught smuggling Cubans into the country will face the law. And Mia mi's US Attorney says he will prosecute three men who smuggled 22 Cubans onto Key Largo island and were caught by US Customs agents.
In addition, the US has made public a secret plan to stop a massive influx from Cuba. The plan was under formulation since the Mariel boatlift and completed in April. It is called ``Operation Distant Shore'' and calls for a massive number of US ships to intercept boats going to or coming from Cuba across the Florida Straits.
In 1980 the federal government attempted to prevent the Mariel boatlift by warning the exile community not to take boats to Cuba but was ignored. This time, however, there is little excitement in the community about a mass exodus from Cuba.
Analysts say the largely unanimous agreement in the Cuban exile community's leadership against an exodus from the island nation is based on a belief that Castro's government is increasingly weak and could soon collapse. Castro may try to relieve the pressure by allowing disgruntled citizens to leave, they say.
Another reason is that the Mariel boatlift, in which Castro sent over 9,000 criminals to Florida, soiled the pristine image that the Cuban exile community tries to maintain. The community had to deal with crimes ranging from robbery to rape.
Cuba, for the first time under Castro, has seen a dissident movement openly defiant of the government. In Havana on Aug. 5, several thousand people battled with police and ransacked a hotel and shops reserved for tourists. One policeman was reported killed.
The disturbances started when hundreds of people gathered at the Malecon, a beach-front wall in central Havana, after hearing rumors that a boat was coming from Miami to collect anyone who wanted to go to the US. When police arrived to disperse the crowd, protesters shouted antigovernment slogans and violence erupted.
Having lost the support of former Soviet bloc countries that propped up Cuba's economy, the Castro government is having a hard time shoring up a rapidly deteriorating economy. Until a decade ago, Cubans enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean.
The country's external revenues have dropped to $1.4 billion, down from $6 billion before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country's health-care system, which used to be the envy of the developing world, is now in tatters because of a shortage of medical supplies and insufficient pay for doctors. A US trade embargo has made matters worse. To generate hard currency, the Castro government has set up tourists hotels and shops where the US dollar is legal tender. These trendy facilities poked the anger of Cuban who can't shop there.
Cubans who cannot take any more have begun to risk their lives on rickety rafts to get to the US. Around 7,000 rafters have been rescued so far this year by the Coast Guard, up from 3,656 for all of 1993. Others simply hijacked boats or diverted airplanes. Between June 4 and Aug. 8, the Coast Guard rescued 408 Cubans from boats.