New Cuban exodus stirs up old tensions

With the latest wave of refugees comes renewed criticism of Castro - as well as of US immigration policy.

Residents along "Condo Canyon" recently watched from their air-conditioned perches as 13 Cubans waded ashore after a grueling journey in a rudimentary fishing boat - bearing nothing but hopes.

When the day was over, 56 Cubans had reached land, struggling to beaches from Miami to the Florida Keys. Another 28 were stopped at sea and returned to Cuba by the US Coast Guard.

Reminiscent of the last great exodus of 1994 when almost 38,000 Cubans left their homeland, this current wave is posing new problems for the United States and stirring up old tensions with its neighbor just 90 miles south.

While the numbers haven't reached crisis proportions yet - so far this year, only 1,500 Cubans have made it to shore - immigration officials expect to see a strong and steady rise.

"There will again be a massive exodus," says Ninoska Perez, spokeswoman for the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami. "[President Fidel] Castro uses it as a release valve."

The United States historically has welcomed asylum seekers from this communist country. Since the 1959 Cuban revolution, there have been many different exoduses - fueled by everything from a devastated economy to a repressive government to Mr. Castro's own willingness to let them leave the island.

But speculation is rife among Miami's Cuban-American population - from rumor to the educated guess - about the reasons for this current wave.

THE island's ever-more dismal economic prospects are driving people to flee, believes Antonio Jorge, a Cuban-born economist and professor at Florida International University.

The government is failing to adequately feed its people after a fall in sugar prices, its main export, he says. "The government can't import enough foodstuffs to be rationed to the people. There is a deepening fatalism on the island."

Ms. Perez, who is known for making scathing phone calls to Havana's Palacio de la Revolucin on her popular call-in radio show, believes Castro is using the immigrants as a tool to pressure the US into breaking its decades-old embargo.

While Washington has been slowly lifting restrictions, scenes of struggle on or near US shores add to the urgency, she says. "It's all a manipulation by Havana. It looks pathetic. It says, 'Get food in to the people here. Lift the embargo.' "

Immigration officials, however, believe this new group of refugees is emerging because of a change in policy after the 1994 exodus.

Under the new policy, Cubans are only offered sanctuary if they make it to shore, not if they are intercepted at sea. This policy is creating a burgeoning new market in people-smuggling.

"We are seeing a different style of rafters coming in," says Petty Officer Jeff Murphy, a Coast Guard spokesman. "It used to be on inner tubes with a sail. Then it was homemade wooden vessels. We're now up to speed boats run by smugglers."

The US Immigration and Naturalization Service recently convened a task force to combat smuggling from Cuba and Haiti, which will include the FBI, Coast Guard, and the US Attorney's Office.

On a less official note, Coast Guard representatives recently met with key leaders of Miami's often volatile Cuban-American community in an effort to smooth relations following several controversial interdictions.

In one incident, a Cuban doused himself and 15 others with gasoline, threatening to ignite the boat before giving in. In another, Coast Guard used pepper spray and water cannons on six Cubans who jumped in the water to swim to shore. Angry demonstrators stopped traffic along a major highway to protest the treatment of the "Surfside Six."

"It seems infantile to differentiate between ... being just a few meters away from the sand and wading ashore," Mr. Jorge says. "If you accept the principle of territorial waters, how is it they have not arrived in the country?"

But unless there is another change in interdiction policy, immigration officials say they will continue to do their jobs.

"Since the Surfside incident, we've received clarification to not use pepper spray if people are in the water," Officer Murphy says. "But we still carry it with us on board. It's very useful."

Some Cubans picked up at sea throw debris and wield knives. And smugglers are suspected of coaching them to jump overboard and scatter. As for relations with the Cuban-American community, Murphy says, "there's been peace."

For her part, Perez believes focusing on interdiction is not the answer.

"The current Coast Guard interception policy is treating a symptom. It is not solving the problem," she says. "Castro is the problem."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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