New Cuba Refugee Policy Floats Few Boats in Florida

President Clinton's tougher stance angers many Cuban-Americans

FOR the last 15 years, Jose Basulto has flown over the azure Florida Straits, spotting Cuban refugees fleeing the communist isle in makeshift rafts.

This week, the Clinton administration announced a policy shift that makes Mr. Basulto's ''Brothers to the Rescue'' obsolete.

''Now that the rules of the game have changed, we no longer have any relevance,'' Basulto says angrily. ''We won't be helping the US government help the Cuban government punish the refugees.''

The surprise about-face in the three-decade-old United States Cuban-refugee policy -- a move apparently aimed at portraying Clinton as tough on illegal immigration -- has dramatically split both the Clinton administration and the Cuban-American community in Florida.

Many in South Florida were elated by Attorney General Janet Reno's announcement on Tuesday that the US would allow most of the 20,900 Cuban refugees detained at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to enter the US. Nine months ago, White House spokesman Jeff Eller said those refugees would not be allowed into the US. ''Not now, not ever.''

But the other policy shift stunned many Cuban-Americans here. Cuban refugees picked up at sea by the US Coast Guard will now be forcibly repatriated to Cuba, said Attorney General Reno.

The ''regularization'' of Cuban immigration appears to circumvent the Cuban Adjustment Act, which automatically grants Cubans political asylum once they reach US soil. No other refugees enjoy that privilege. But Wayne Smith, a former head of the US Interests Section in Havana, says, ''The US seems to be saying that the act does not apply because Cubans will not be allowed to reach our shores.''

The policy change enrages many in South Florida.

''It's unconscionable and unprecedented,'' says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida. ''Never before in our history have we entered into an agreement with a communist dictatorship where we systematically return refugees to that communist country.''

The new policy, negotiated in secret talks last month in New York, requires that refugees picked up by the Coast Guard ask for political asylum.

If they do so, they will be met in Havana by US officials and may apply for it through legal channels.

The politically powerful Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), the largest Cuban-exile organization in the US, says it has been betrayed.

''Cuban-Americans have been sold out for one reason: politics. The Clinton administration hopes to benefit from the anti-immigrant sentiment that appears to have swept the country,'' says Jorge Mas Canosa, the CANF chairman.

The CANF had organized sponsors to feed, lodge, and clothe the Guantanamo refugees if they were allowed into the US. Mr. Mas Canosa now says that offer has been retracted.

''Who's going to pay for their maintenance? Who's going to pay for their health care? Where are we going to get housing?,'' asks Rep. E. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida. ''I'm not sure that this is well thought through.''

The rift over the policy shift was also felt within the Clinton administration. The decision was made by the White House and the Justice Department, not the State Department, according to an official familiar with the US-Cuba immigration talks. Dennis Hayes, the State Department's coordinator of Cuban affairs and his deputy, Nancy Mason, asked to be reassigned in protest of the decision.

But the change is not universally derided.

''The new policy will most certainly discourage illegal immigration from Cuba and also prevent the unnecessary loss of life on the dangerous trip across the Florida Straits,'' says Florida's Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Pentagon officials also note that the Guantanamo refugee camp is costing taxpayers $1 million a day. And if the refugees had stayed there, the base would have required a $100 million upgrade.

Some Cuba policy analysts see this as a possible first step toward rapprochement with Fidel Castro Ruz -- a step increasingly called for by both Republicans and Democrats who see the US-Cuba cold war standoff as outdated.

But other analysts say national politics more than foreign policy or even Florida politics, are the motive for the change.

''President Clinton is looking at the big picture and not just Florida,'' says Lisandor Perez, director of the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University. ''He sends a message that he's cracking down on illegal immigration and that's a message that resonates throughout the heartland.''

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