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Clinton’s Move Evokes Shock, Anger in Miami

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The well-trod welcome mat got yanked up Friday from South Florida’s beaches, and in its place the U.S. government stuck up a freshly painted sign: No More Cubans. And on the streets of Miami, the emotions bubbling to the surface were chiefly shock, surprise and anger.

“This is a monumental change in immigration policy,” Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said of the Clinton Administration’s announcement that after almost 30 years of special treatment, Cuban migrants will be treated the same as those from other nations.

“This is the Haitianization of the Cuban exodus,” Perez said. “You put them somewhere until you decide what to do with them. Now Cubans will be treated like Haitians.”

Indeed, the sea change in longstanding U.S. refugee policy toward Cubans--approved by the U.S. Congress in 1966 and accepted as a fact of life by South Florida’s exile community--may not sink in until Miami’s Cuban American community sees its effects in news photographs, which will show their compatriots detained on a U.S. naval base in the same country they attempted to flee.

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Those pictures may soon be coming. The first Cubans intercepted at sea were to be on their way late Friday, aboard one of two Navy vessels assigned to shuttle service from the Florida Straits to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In announcing the change in U.S. policy, President Clinton said that he hopes “most Cuban Americans would support what we’re trying to do and will want us to be firm.” He added: “I will be surprised if this policy does not have broad support.”

Early indications were that many in this city, home to tens of thousands of onetime refugees from the Caribbean and Latin America, do support the decision to deny Cubans automatic entry to the United States. Chief among those supporters are many Haitians, who for years have charged that U.S. immigration policy unfairly favored Cubans.

Cuban refugees “have been swimming in pools in hotels while Haitians have been under the hot sun in tents,” said Haitian activist Roger Biamby. “It is obvious discrimination.”

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For many Cubans here, the policy switch created ambivalence. No one wants a repeat of the chaotic 1980 Mariel boat lift, when 125,000 refugees, including many dangerous prisoners and mental patients, overwhelmed South Florida and its social services.

But neither do Cuban Americans relish seeing their brothers turned away when they are attempting to flee the harsh economic and political reality of their homeland.

About 150 demonstrators gathered Friday afternoon outside a city auditorium where refugee processing had been going on. Some carried signs denouncing the new policy.

“A slap in the face of the Cuban people,” said Jose Basulto, a founder of Brothers to the Rescue, a group of volunteer pilots who fly the Florida Straits in search of rafters.

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“Cubans are angry at Clinton over this,” said Tomas Garcia Fuste, a popular Spanish-language radio talk show host. He spent much of Friday afternoon saying to those in Cuba who pick up his broadcasts over station CMQ: “With all sincerity, I am asking you: stay home. Because if you come here, they will put you in jail.”

Of the problems unleashed by Fidel Castro when he allowed Cubans to leave the island in small boats and rafts, Garcia Fuste said: “This is a big hot potato for everybody. We understand that the government needed to do something, because Castro had created disorder here.

“But if the Clinton Administration wants to put us in the same boat as the Haitians, then they have to make the embargo against Cuba the same as Haiti. Make it tougher.”

Also arguing for tighter sanctions on Cuba was Arturo Cobo, the volcanic director of the Transit Home for Cuban Refugees in Key West, who in the last two weeks has given thousands of exiles food and clothing before seeing them climb on buses for Miami. “If he wants to treat us like he treats the Haitians, why not blockade Cuba?” he roared.

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Carlos Solis, the Transit Home vice director, argued that the sudden reversal of policy is not fair. “You can’t change your mind when someone else’s life is at stake,” he said. “We cannot accept this treatment for Cuban refugees.”

Cesar Odio, Miami’s city manager, said the policy change signals that “Fidel Castro has won.

“This is exactly what he was looking for. Who is being punished here? The innocent rafters who are seeking only freedom.”

Odio predicted that Miami’s streets soon will be full of demonstrators protesting the new policy.

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What no one here seems to know yet is what will happen to any of the Cuban refugees, held at Guantanamo or at the Krome Avenue Detention Center west of Miami, who are deemed ineligible for U.S. residency. The Administration has said that third countries are being sought to take refugees. But no Cuban has ever been repatriated involuntarily to Cuba from the United States.

“I think they will have to negotiate,” Perez said. “And I think Castro hopes to talk. I know that doesn’t sound good to a lot of people.

“But I think a lot of Cubans here will eventually give this change some guarded support. It’s OK when people were escaping but we don’t like it when we seem to be playing Castro’s game. And when he allows them to leave, then it’s his game.

“Cutting off the refugee flow creates a problem for Fidel. Now he has a political problem in addition to his economic problems.”

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Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based group which sponsors educational trips to Cuba and favors normal relations with the Castro regime, called the Clinton policy ludicrous.

She said: “It is crazy that the U.S. thinks the solution is to hold them in Guantanamo, which is held illegally by this country to begin with. The only rational way out of this is to lift the embargo.

“We are creating disaster there through the blockade. Why are we making ordinary Cubans suffer? This is playing with people’s lives.”


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