As congressional Republicans begin a new push to tighten the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, the Clinton Administration announced Thursday that 3,000 U.S. troops will be dispatched to help move almost 8,000 Cuban refugees from temporary camps in Panama back to the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay.
The evacuation is scheduled to begin early next month. The U.S.-Panama agreement stipulates that the Cubans leave Panama by March 6.
The closure of the Panama camps marks a hollow ending to Operation Safe Haven, which was launched last September after a mass exodus on makeshift rafts by Cubans hoping to find new homes in the United States. The United States had hoped that Panama would extend the agreement to harbor the refugees and that other countries would join in.
The Cubans in turn had hoped that Panama would be a transit point to the United States or other third countries.
As the months have gone by, frustration deepened then finally exploded in riots in the Panama camps last month. More than 300 soldiers and 24 Cubans were injured and two Cubans died--forcing Washington to send in more troops with shotguns and riot equipment.
The new American troops are intended to ensure the safety of both refugees and U.S. soldiers. At least 600 Cubans are still deemed security risks and may be moved by ship rather than aircraft, Pentagon officials said.
Some 1,250 troops will be sent to Panama and 1,800 to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. "Every effort will be made to ensure that this transfer is accomplished in a safe and orderly manner," said State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly.
Conditions in the Guantanamo camp are also being improved to help ease tensions. Hot and cold water will be added to permanent shelters, along with adult education and entertainment. In part because of crowded conditions, human rights groups in Panama charged that the United States was running concentration camps there.
The evacuation reflects the costly deadlock in relations between the United States and Cuba, the only non-democratic country left in the hemisphere. Return of the 8,000 Cubans will bring the total granted indefinite safe haven in Guantanamo to almost 32,000, the equivalent of a small city.
The cost of Operation Safe Haven since September already has reached $28.6 million, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
And there is no end to the refugee issue in sight. In talks last September, Havana agreed to stop Cubans from sailing off in rickety rafts and overcrowded boats, while Washington agreed to allow 20,000 Cubans to immigrate yearly--provided that they entered from Cuba through normal channels.
So far only about 820 refugees have returned voluntarily to Cuba with U.S. help or by fleeing the Guantanamo camp. Spain took some 70 of the refugees and Venezuela will take 100.
State Department officials conceded that the kind of political change in Cuba required to persuade more people to return does not seem imminent. "We don't foresee political upheaval in the near future," a high-level State Department official said.
U.S. officials do, however, predict significant change economically, mainly because of the American economic embargo's impact on the regime of President Fidel Castro.
"The Cubans are playing a game in which they're finding it increasingly difficult to juggle all the balls at the same time," the State Department official said.
"They now appear willing to let up on some of the economic controls," the official said. "We think some (reforms) will reach the point this year where they take on a life of their own."
But even as Castro has experimented with economic reform, his regime has cracked down on dissidents since last fall after the U.S.-Cuba deal on immigration.
Although the United States is under pressure from allies in Latin America and elsewhere to lift the economic embargo, four bills introduced in the House on opening day of the 104th Congress instead may tighten it.
One stipulates that the United States be forbidden to import sugar from countries that obtain sugar from Cuba. Another prohibits visas to officials or shareholders of foreign companies that invest in or purchase U.S. properties expropriated in Cuba.
"With the help of distinguished colleagues now in important positions in the new Congress, I will fight to significantly strengthen the U.S. sanctions against the Cuban dictatorship," said Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), author of the four bills.
The only looming change in U.S.-Cuban relations is the long-anticipated agreement on allowing the opening of reciprocal news bureaus in Washington and Havana. The number of Cuban outlets in America will be determined by the number of U.S. outlets allowed to operate in Cuba.
At minimum, the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina is expected to open a bureau in Washington, with the Associated Press and possibly NBC and the New York Times doing the same in Cuba.