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Cuban Americans Hold Back on Flotilla

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Warned repeatedly that they would be arrested and their boats seized, Cuban Americans here so far have resisted the temptation to launch a high-seas flotilla to Cuba to pick up relatives and bring them to the United States.

“Really, people have learned the lesson,” said Spanish-language radio talk show host Tomas Garcia Fuste, referring to the chaotic 1980 Mariel boat lift, in which 125,000 Cubans, including large numbers of criminals and mental patients, were allowed to flee to South Florida. “They do not want to dance to Fidel Castro’s music. There will not be another Mariel.”

Still, local officials remain concerned a week after an unprecedented riot on the streets of Havana and a clear threat from the Cuban president to open Cuban ports to defectors if the United States does not take “serious measures to guard their coasts.”

Although the Clinton Administration said Wednesday that 12 Coast Guard and Navy vessels have been ordered to head for the Straits of Florida, Dade County Manager Joaquin Avino admitted Thursday that “we face three days of lag time (between a declared emergency and the start of a military blockade), and we would be on our own holding them back.”

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Avino refused to divulge details of local contingency plans, but heading off a boat lift presumably would fall to police and marine patrol agents.

At the same time, Avino said there is no evidence that any flotilla is in the making.

Lauding the “intelligence and maturity” of South Florida Cubans, Avino said: “The Cuban American community is not going to let Castro say what is going to happen here. Conditions are not the same as in 1980 (and not right) for another Mariel to occur.”

Indeed, one factor that has mitigated the desire of many in South Florida to sail to Cuba in hopes of taking relatives from there has been what Avino called the “silent migration,” in which thousands of Cubans who enter the United States each year on tourist visas do not return to their native land.

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Dade County officials estimated that as many as 30% of the 1,600 Cubans who arrive in Miami on charter flights each week overstay visas and do not go home. Other Cubans enter the country on illegal visas obtained in Costa Rica or the Dominican Republic.

Avino estimated that as recently as two years ago, about 14,000 Cubans a month were entering the country as tourists, most of them to stay. Now, with fewer tourist visas being issued by American authorities in Cuba, that figure has been cut.

Still, whether they arrive on a visa or on a raft, as about 400 to 500 refugees a month do now, no Cuban--except for hard-core felons--is ever deported. The United States treats all Cubans as individuals seeking political asylum; the United States has no deportation agreement with the Cuban government.

Garcia Fuste said that many exiles who have been here for more than 10 years already have managed to bring their families from Cuba. “Only those who came in the last three years or so want to get family,” he said.

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The memory of Mariel also remains strong and bitter here. Although a proposed naval blockade is designed primarily to stop a north-south flow of U.S. residents to Cuba, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) said he could foresee a situation in which Cubans would be stopped at sea if there were evidence Castro again was sending criminals or other dangerous people to the United States.

State officials are also preparing. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles said that refugees arriving in the Florida Keys or Miami would be sent immediately to reception areas as far away as Palm Beach County, identified and medically screened and bused to a larger staging area such as Homestead Air Force Base.

From Homestead--which is all but closed after being extensively damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992--the Cubans would be further dispersed to military bases outside Florida, Chiles said in a briefing Wednesday.

In theory, the care and processing of illegal immigrants is a federal responsibility, and Avino said Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and other top U.S. officials have assured him that responsibility will be met. But state and local officials know that South Florida resources will be taxed first by any massive influx of immigrants.

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Operation Distant Shore, the classified federal plan to deal with a Mariel-type emergency, earmarks $35 million to reimburse state and local governments for housing, food and health care. But under normal conditions, the cost of caring for illegal immigrants in Florida runs to $884 million a year, according to state estimates.

Earlier this year, Florida sued the federal government, saying its failed immigration policy costs the state as much as $2.5 billion a year in schools, hospitals, prisons and other public services. Chiles has said the federal government’s failure to accept responsibility for the flood of illegal immigrants who arrive in Florida each year “has created a nightmare for state and local governments . . . (and deprives) our citizens of services we can’t give them.”

Meanwhile, the slow-motion immigration continues. The Coast Guard reported spotting at least seven rafts in the Straits of Florida on Thursday; the number of Cubans who have sailed to this country this year has climbed toward 5,400. In 1993--a record year--3,656 sailed in on small boats and inner-tube rafts.

In Key West, 25 of the 26 people aboard a boat commandeered from the port of Mariel on Monday were released to a resettlement agency in Miami while federal authorities continued to question the Cuban coast guardsman who reportedly hijacked the vessel. “The diversion of the naval vessel is under review by our office,” U.S. Atty. Kendall Coffey said.

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The Cuban government has demanded the return of Leonel Macias Gonzalez, 19, who allegedly shot at fellow guardsmen when he took over the bright-green boat, then stopped at a nearby beach to pick up the others who came with him to Florida.

Macias’ girlfriend told reporters Wednesday that he said he fired only when fired upon and that he hit no one. The Cuban government said someone was shot.


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