Clinton Halts Special Treatment for Cubans : Refugees: Decades-old program favoring immigrants is reversed. Sweeping new U.S. policy called permanent.


In an announcement that stunned Cubans and their relatives in this country, President Clinton said Friday that refugees from Fidel Castro’s communist nation will no longer receive preferential treatment from the United States or special help in resettling in this country.

Clinton made clear that the new plan for detaining Cubans arriving by the hundreds in boats is instead a sweeping new policy, rather than a temporary arrangement, that permanently reverses nearly 30 years of precedent.

Determined to avoid a repeat of the 1980 Mariel boat lift, which saw 125,000 Cubans enter the country in a seaborne exodus, Clinton said that Castro is again trying to export his nation’s political and economic crises to the United States.

“This action is a cold-blooded attempt to maintain the Castro grip on Cuba and to divert attention from his failed communist policies,” Clinton said at an afternoon press conference at the White House. “Let me be clear: the Cuban government will not succeed in any attempt to dictate American immigration policy.”


Clinton vowed that there would be no repeat of the 1980 experience--in which throngs of people, including some with criminal records, mental problems or contagious diseases--were turned loose from Cuban shores aboard boats bound for Florida.

“We had 120,000 people sent to this country as a deliberate attempt . . . to export all the problems of Cuba to the United States,” Clinton said. “We tried it that way once. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now, and I’m not going to let it happen again.”

Florida authorities welcomed the Clinton announcement but refugee advocates and some Republicans deplored it.

Cuban Americans received the news with mixed emotions. Some worried that their friends and relatives still in Cuba would have no hope of reaching this country. Others were gratified that Castro’s effort to rid himself of political foes was being thwarted and that the Mariel boat lift, which caused a backlash against Cuban Americans, will not be repeated.


Although Clinton did not mention it, the 1980 Mariel refugee flood was one of the central issues in his defeat that year in a bid for reelection as governor of Arkansas. Hundreds of Marielistas temporarily housed at Ft. Chafee, Ark., rioted and many escaped, provoking widespread citizen outrage.

Clinton at the time blamed federal authorities for not giving him enough money or troops to properly police the Cuban refugees.

More than 7,000 Cubans have landed in Florida this year, nearly twice the total for all of 1993. In August alone, the Coast Guard has rescued more than 2,700 Cuban refugees from the Florida Straits, including 547 Cubans on Wednesday, the biggest single day since the 1980 exodus. Friday’s total by 5 p.m. PDT was 454.

Castro has not publicly urged his citizens to flee but Florida and federal officials accuse him of tacitly encouraging the exodus to lessen political pressure on his regime.


Administration officials said that additional Coast Guard and Navy ships would be sent to patrol the waters between Cuba and the South Florida coastline. Some vessels would be diverted from duty off Haiti and from anti-drug missions, Pentagon officials said.

Until Friday, Cubans reaching American soil or picked up at sea were rapidly released into American society after only cursory screening under terms of a 1966 law, the Cuban Adjustment Act. Many were released to family or friends in Miami while their applications for permanent residency were considered.

Now, however, Cubans who make it to the United States will be housed indefinitely at the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Krome Detention Center just west of Miami while their residency applications are considered. It is anticipated that some eventually will be granted residency, but the process will be protracted and the outcome uncertain.

Cubans plucked from the sea will be taken to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for detention. About 14,000 Haitian refugees are already housed at Guantanamo in a makeshift tent city.


Officials are seeking facilities in third countries for the Cubans, as they have for Haitians. Several Caribbean nations tentatively have agreed to house the refugees, but no facilities are yet in place.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said that no Cubans would be sent back to Cuba against their will.

Reno said the Administration is determined not to let Castro have “a safety valve” on public unrest stemming from Cuba’s deteriorating economy. She said that Cubans who want to come to the United States should apply through a processing system in place in Cuba.

The Administration’s goal, Reno said, is to stand up to Castro and “not let him dupe us as he did in 1980.” At that time, she was chief prosecutor in Florida’s Dade County.


Clinton’s action came just hours after Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles declared a state of emergency and threatened to call out the National Guard to help stem the influx of Cuban refugees, who have been landing in Florida at the rate of about 500 a day all week.

Chiles said that Florida could not stand a repeat of the 1980 experience and said that Clinton’s action should encourage Cubans to remain home and work for the downfall of the Castro government.

The U.S. Catholic Conference, however, said that it was “surprised and concerned” by Clinton’s policy reversal.

“We are concerned that more than half of those fleeing are families with young children and elderly members and we want to continue to insure their safety,” said John Swenson of the conference’s Office of Refugee Services.


Five members of Congress, representing districts in Florida and New Jersey with Cuban American constituencies, criticized Clinton and demanded that the United States unilaterally impose a naval blockade on Cuba.

“As Haiti’s ports are blockaded and overt and covert aid is being provided pro-democracy forces in Haiti, so too must it be in Cuba,” said Florida Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) also took issue with the Clinton decision.

“President Clinton should call on Fidel Castro to step down immediately,” Dole said in a press release issued even before the President spoke. “President Clinton should make it clear to Fidel Castro that sending the occupants of Cuban prisons, insane asylums and hospitals to Florida will be considered an act of aggression against the U.S.--and the U.S. will respond appropriately.”


In his press conference, Clinton firmly rejected a suggestion that he open a political dialogue with Castro, as he and other American leaders have with heads of other communist governments. He also ruled out lifting the U.S. economic embargo against Havana, which has been in place since shortly after Castro seized power in 1959.

“The real problem is the stubborn refusal of the Castro regime to have an open democracy and an open economy, and I think the policies we are following will hasten the day when that occurs,” Clinton said.

He also firmly warned Cuban-Americans against using their own boats to rescue Cuban immigrants. Many Cubans who fled during the Mariel boat lift were picked up by friends and relatives in Florida who went out to sea to meet them.

“The United States will detain, investigate and, if necessary, prosecute Americans who take to the sea to pick up Cubans,” Clinton said. “Vessels used in such activities will be seized.”


Also Friday, Cable News Network reported that Clinton has ordered four new steps intended to increase the pressure on Castro’s regime.

The network said that the State Department will announce soon that it will seek U.N. condemnation of alleged human rights abuses in Cuba. The Administration was also reported to be planning to cut in half the amount of cash that Cuban Americans can send home to relatives, from $300 a quarter to $150, to boost anti-Castro broadcasts to Cuba and to reduce the number of authorized charter flights from the United States to Cuba.

CNN also said that Clinton was discussing the policy changes with Chiles and a group of Cuban American leaders at the White House on Friday night.