Clinton Had to Do the Cuban About-Face : Castro tries to export his troubles to the United States

Old Fidel Castro has been causing headaches in Washington for 35 years. Many Americans therefore instinctively blame the dictator for the latest crisis in the Florida Straits. And even though the growing stream of refugees from Cuba is not on the scale of the Mariel boat lift of 1980, the upsurge has prompted President Clinton to make a major change in how the United States handles Cuban refugees--indeed, with the precise intent of avoiding another Mariel.

However, the last Latin American communist head of state notwithstanding, to a great degree this latest refugee problem in the Caribbean is Washington’s fault, as Castro himself delights in pointing out. During the Cold War, Washington wrote special exceptions into U.S. immigration laws specifically for refugees from the communist regime. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, for instance, allowed Cubans detained by U.S. immigration officials for illegally entering this country to be released, granted legal resident status and even provided with some social services, rather than be deported. Little wonder so many Cubans eagerly fled to the United States.

While such a staunchly anti-Castro immigration policy was arguably needed during the Cold War, now it is ridiculously out of date and counterproductive. After all, existing policy should be aimed at toppling Castro, instead of providing a crutch for that shaky regime. In fact, he might dissolve altogether were it not for the safety valve of immigration to the United States. Washington’s policy also keeps drawing Cuban refugees to Florida, a state whose residents resent, rightly or wrongly, the growing burden. That is a key reason Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat who is facing a tough reelection campaign, this week raised such a fuss over the refugee influx, declaring a state of emergency and calling on Washington for help.

The plea from Chiles got the White House’s attention and prompted the Clinton Administration to come up with a carrot-and-stick approach that should help slow the influx. The carrot: issuing more formal immigration visas through the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The stick: ordering the Coast Guard to halt boats that its patrols intercept and to escort would-be refugees to detention centers outside the United States.


Immigration officials believe that allowing Cubans to formally apply for visas at the Interests Section, which functions as a U.S. embassy in Havana, may relieve the desperation that leads some Cubans to hijack boats or flee in unsafe craft. That should work, especially if preference is given to Cubans who have no relatives in the United States. The most driven and truly needy refugees seem to be those who have no family members in this country sending dollars back to Cuba.

Granted, such an approach might seem to play into Castro’s hands, relieving tensions in his country and adding much-needed U.S. currency to Cuba’s economy. But a few more dollars sent in Cuba mainly will relieve the immediate needs of desperate people, not, in the long run, save Castro.

Indeed, by making it clear that Cubans who try to enter the United States illegally will no longer be allowed to stay almost automatically, the Administration will make it that much harder for Castro to export his many unhappy compatriots to this country. What one wants is for most, if not all, to remain in Cuba so their discontent will hasten that annoying dictator’s inevitable downfall.