Cuban Americans Shift on Refugees

Miami Cubans urge Clinton to reopen door to kinfolk

FEW issues get unanimous response in Miami's large Cuban exile community. One of them is that Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz must go.

In the past few weeks another unanimity emerged: Cuban Americans want the 26,000 Cuban refugees detained in a safe haven at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba and the 4,000 detained in Panama to be released and brought to the United States.

This demand is opposite to the anti-immigration sentiments of many Floridians, 57 percent of whom prefer to have refugees returned to Cuba. And it is a reversal of the Cuban American leadership's position a few months ago.

The political fortunes of Florida's Gov. Lawton Chiles are riding on what decisions the Clinton administration makes until election day Nov. 8. Governor Chiles is in a tough reelection battle with Jeb Bush, son of former President Bush. Chiles has never lost a race in 35 years but is in a virtual tie in the polls with Mr. Bush.

Cuban Americans in favor of lifting the US embargo on Cuba and of starting a dialogue between exiles and Mr. Castro, and those passionately opposed to any measures that might lengthen the Castro's rule, go on Spanish-speaking radio to demand that the refugees be freed. There have been parades, prayers, and vigils.

Go-slow approach

Cuban-born Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, who two months ago was adamantly opposed to a massive influx of refugees, arguing that the city does not have the resources to cater to them, wants the refugees released into the community gradually.

He called on Attorney General Janet Reno to send the 20,000 immigrant visas earmarked for Cuba to the refugees at Guantanamo. The Clinton administration last month agreed to reserve the visas for Cubans in Havana to come to the US in exchange for Castro to stop Cubans heading to Florida on rafts.

Castro, in August, opened the door for Cubans who want to leave for the US to go, and thousands took to the ocean. The decision followed a series of incidents in which Cubans hijacked government boats and airplanes to get to Florida. An anti-Castro mob, openly defiant for the first time, clashed with police on a few streets in Havana on Aug. 5.

When the former Soviet bloc that propped up Cuba's economy collapsed, Cuba's economy went downhill also. The nation had had an education and health-care system that used to be the envy of the developing world. Then suddenly, all went bust.

To turn things around, the government turned to tourism, building fancy hotels and shops that accepted only the US dollar and other hard currency. For Cubans who could not shop in these facilities there was anger, leading to desperation to head for the US.

For about two weeks, the number of Cubans heading for the US on home-made rafts was so overwhelming that the Clinton administration changed three decades of policy that allowed Cubans to come to the US with ease.

The administration then entered into negotiations with the Castro regime. To bring an end to the crisis, the administration agreed to increase the number of immigrant visas to Cubans, not allow rafters into the US, and to detain rafters in ``safe havens.''

The president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), Francisco ``Pepe'' Hernandez, says if the refugees remain in detention for an extended period, his organization will take steps, including a lawsuit, to force their release.

City manager Odio and Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of the CANF, were among a Florida delegation that met with President Clinton at the White House in August when the president was considering scrapping the 28-year preferential treatment that Cuban refugees received from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to discourage rafters. At the time, they supported the decision.

But since then both men have come under criticism in the Cuban-American community. Critics say they helped take away a special privilege accorded Cubans and got nothing in return to dislodge Castro.

Reopening floodgates?

The CANF, Odio, and other Cuban-American leaders formed an ad hoc committee and sent a proposal to the administration urging that Cubans at Guantanamo be given priority and allowed to apply for visas without going back to Cuba. The administration's position is that the refugees must apply in Havana to come to the US. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Skol said at a Senate hearing last Friday: ``If we were to let them [the refugees] in, we'd be undercutting our dissuasive policy [of keeping rafters out].''

Ricardo Alarcon, the Cuban negotiator who worked out the agreement with the administration, said on TV that the agreement prohibits allowing the detainees into the US.

The administration, which was expected to announce its regulations on the 20,000 visas on Tuesday, has postponed the announcement.

Opinion polls show strong anti-immigration sentiment and Chiles' reelection could be hurt if the administration is seen as going soft on the refugees at a time when the cost of educating the children of illegal immigrants in Florida is costing state and local communities $1 billion a year.

Chiles, careful not to be seen as fueling anti-immigrant sentiments, turned his criticism on Washington. In April he sued the federal government to recoup money spent to educate and provide health care for illegal immigrants. He also reached agreement with Washington to send 500 illegal immigrants back to their countries.

Chiles' opponent Bush supports continued detention of the Cuban refugees and is against their entry into the US. On the larger issue of illegal immigration he wants all the states with serious immigration problems to band together and put pressure on Washington.

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