The United States and Cuba, after more than a week of tense negotiations, signed an immigration agreement Friday designed to end the spectacle--embarrassing to both President Clinton and Cuban President Fidel Castro--of Cubans taking to the high seas in rafts and makeshift boats in desperate quests for haven in the United States.
American officials quickly hailed the agreement as a triumph for the Clinton Administration. Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff described it as the fruit "of quick and decisive action by President Clinton."
In the final agreement, in fact, the Cubans accepted little more than the United States had offered in the opening round of talks on Sept. 1.
The President, in a statement issued while he was in New Orleans for a speech, predicted that the end of the massive exodus from Cuba is imminent. "This agreement, when carried out, will help ensure that the massive flow of dangerous and illegal migration will be replaced by a safer, legal and more orderly process," he said.
Under the agreement signed in New York, the United States will accept a minimum of 20,000 Cubans a year on regular visas and an unspecified number of close relatives of residents now in the United States, as well as, for one year only, all those eligible Cubans now on the visa waiting list in the American diplomatic mission in Havana. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 Cubans would enter the United States in this last category.
In exchange, the Cubans have agreed to try to end the exodus of rafters without using violence. As the signed agreement states, "The Republic of Cuba will take effective measures in every way it possibly can to prevent unsafe departures using mainly persuasive methods."
There was little solace in the agreement for the 25,000 Cubans now detained in camps alongside Haitian refugees at the U.S. naval base on Guantanamo Bay on the eastern tip of Cuba. The agreement simply provides for their return to Cuba, not their entry into the United States.
"The voluntary return of Cuban nationals who arrived in the United States or in safe havens outside the United States on or after Aug. 19, 1994, will continue to be arranged through diplomatic channels," the agreement states.
The Administration was clearly satisfied. "We were prepared to do a little bit more than the numbers they agreed to," said an Administration official. "We came in under the top."
On Aug. 19, Clinton--trying to discourage the burgeoning exodus and intent on avoiding a repeat of the Mariel boat lift that brought 130,000 Cubans to the United States in 1980--changed longstanding American policy and revoked the automatic right of entry into the United States that all Cuban political refugees had been granted. Instead, the President ordered the Coast Guard to pluck the rafters out of the Florida Strait and take them to Guantanamo or other havens.
Reno said that Cuban nationals held outside their country would get visas only if they returned to Cuba and applied at the U.S. interests section, as the American diplomatic mission is officially known. "They will not be eligible for processing into the United States from Guantanamo" or the other havens, she said.
During the negotiations, the Cubans had demanded that Clinton lift the sanctions he imposed on Cuba after Castro allowed the raft exodus to begin in July. Clinton ordered an end to the flow of foreign exchange from the United States into Cuba and curtailed the number of flights from Miami. The agreement, however, makes no mention of these sanctions.
Nor does it mention any future discussions of the trade embargo that the United States has maintained against Cuba for 32 years.
Asked at a news conference whether these issues were covered in any secret understandings or agreements accompanying the signed immigration document, Undersecretary Tarnoff replied: "None whatsoever."
Tarnoff said that the question of foreign exchange remittances and flights from Miami "is not part of the agreement and nothing of that sort is contemplated." Clinton had insisted that the talks focus only on immigration.
Tarnoff said that easing of the embargo would come only after Castro has demonstrated that he is taking steps toward democracy, a free market and human rights guarantees. "If it is seriously interested in reform," he said, "the government of Cuba must agree to be in touch with its own people."
Although American negotiators, following the White House line, had refused to discuss more than immigration, Administration officials acknowledged that Castro, by precipitating the long exodus, had forced the White House to begin thinking seriously about a new strategy toward Cuba.
Many influential congressmen like Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have urged Clinton in the last few days to start thinking of wooing Cuba away from its doctrinaire Marxism by easing the embargo.
"People will now be talking more about possible strategies," said an Administration official. "There has always been a blockage in the discussion. The discussion was taboo. Now, it's not taboo anymore, not on (Capitol) Hill, not in the Cuban community and not inside the Administration."
In one concession to Cuba, the agreement, signed by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Skol and Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, states that both sides agree to try to stop hijackers from seizing boats and planes to flee to the United States.
Castro apparently permitted the rafters' exodus originally because of his anger over the welcome by U.S. officials for Cuban refugees who had hijacked ferry boats in Havana. Asked if the agreement means that the United States now will prosecute such hijackers, Reno replied: "We will do everything we possibly can under the law."
The negotiators also agreed that American and Cuban officials would meet again in 45 days to review the implementation of the agreement and, if needed, would schedule more meetings.
The agreement was signed after the U.S.-Cuban talks had been suspended for almost two days to allow Alarcon, a former foreign minister and U.N. ambassador, to return to Havana, presumably to confer with Castro.
At Guantanamo on Friday, there was only gloom and uncertainty over the agreement. The number of Cubans detained may balloon to almost 30,000 today with the arrival of a Navy ship that has been collecting rafters from Coast Guard cutters.
So far, authorities said, only one Cuban on Guantanamo has expressed a desire to return to Cuba. Cubans escaping the island traditionally have expressed fears about going back, citing the possibility of criminal penalties and other sanctions by the Cuban government. The agreement seems to imply, however, that they would be accepted back this time without punishment.
Times staff writers Doyle McManus and David Savage in Washington and Patrick J. McDonnell in Miami contributed to this story.