A SWELLING tide of raft-borne refugees from Cuba is defying US attempts to stem it and threatening a return to the chaos of the 1980 Mariel boat-lift crisis.
Concern is rising in Washington because the Cuban influx is following a different pattern than its Haitian counterpart did earlier this summer. Haitians quickly decided to stay home after the US vowed they would be intercepted and interned at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Cubans, by contrast, have so far appeared undeterred by the prospect of a prolonged stay at a refugee camp in their own homeland.
Their numbers may yet dwindle. But on Tuesday the Coast Guard picked up nearly 3,100 Cuban rafters, the largest number by far since Mariel. Reports from Cuba indicated that large numbers of refugees were still setting out from the beaches and that the Coast Guard would probably remain busy through this week.
In the face of this development US officials insist that Cuban refugees will now be unlikely to ever set foot on the promised land of south Florida.
``That is why we are trying to discourage the people from leaving,'' Defense Secretary William Perry said in a broadcast interview on Tuesday.
US officials have also tried to make legal Cuban immigration to the US, as opposed to illegal boat entry, more attractive. They have vowed to speed up and streamline the application process. Ironically, the 1994 quota of Cuban immigrants to the US is 26,000, but only 2,059 Cubans have been accepted thus far this year through the formal immigration process.
But the reasons Cubans are trying their luck on the open sea are complex and not easily addressed by US policy, experts say. The Cuban economy is in such poor shape that merely getting enough to eat is problematic for many. The large Cuban American community in Miami remains a magnet. For nearly three decades, the US has welcomed rafters with open arms and a cursory check at immigration.
What refugees may believe
Many refugees thus may believe that the current closed door is only a temporary policy reversal. The shock that they are unwanted may set in soon, leading to a short-run decline in refugee numbers, predicts Terry McCoy, head of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. But Cuba's internal problems are acute, with little improvement on the horizon. Ties between Cuba and the southeast US are historically close - meaning the refugee problem is not going away for good.
``Over the longer run, I think the refugee flow will reappear,'' Mr. McCoy says. ``Its root causes are unresolved. These people live with a really desperate situation.''
The long-run policy issue thus might be how the United States can facilitate Cuba's gradual transfer to a more democratic and market-oriented society. The aging Fidel Castro himself is unlikely to cooperate. But experts insist that there are Cubans of stature, some within the government itself, who have shown willingness to take their country in a different direction.
One thing the US might do is help these reformers bolster a civil society in Cuba - something that currently hardly exists. ``We should start sending messages about what we are prepared to do for a Cuba that is more democratic and market-oriented,'' says Edward Gonzalez, a Rand Corporation Cuba analyst. ``That could reassure possible reformers and also give them incentive to push for change.''
For instance, the US might offer to discuss with a receptive Cuban government the status of the naval base where refugees are now being diverted. Guantanamo Bay has long been a source of irritation for Mr. Castro, a tiny piece of his island the US has continued to hold since the bearded revolutionary seized power in 1959.
A bill currently pending in Congress promises to return Guantanamo to a future democratically elected Cuban government and also provide some kind of monetary aid. Passage of this bill would ``demonstrate that we mean business,'' said its principal author, Rep. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, earlier this year.
Meanwhile, US officials are worried about Guantanamo's ability to hold the continuing flood of refugees. Some 14,000 Haitians are already interned at the sprawling, dusty camp, with temporary housing for 10,000 Cubans scheduled to be completed by this weekend.
Basically, Guantanamo is a ``holding camp,'' said Defense Secretary Perry on Tuesday. It promises nothing but a boring, frustrating existence.
``There's nothing, really, for them to do there,'' Perry said.
US officials have already had to contain disturbances among frustrated Haitians, and the influx of a competing Caribbean nationality might increase tensions. Already rumors have swept through the Haitian internees that food stocks originally meant for them are being diverted to the Cubans, who are being held in a separate area of the base.