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Refugee policy change coming?

Experts warn that changing the policy on people escaping Cuba may create significant difficulties.

Published August 2, 2006

MIAMI - Just 48 hours after Cuban leader Fidel Castro transferred power to his brother, some Cuban-American politicians announced that the Bush administration may make changes to immigration policy as it relates to Cuban emigres.

Experts say any tinkering with the “wet foot-dry foot policy” — which allows Cubans fleeing the island to stay in the U.S. only if they reach dry land — would likely destabilize an already fragile Cuban society, enrage other immigrants in the U.S., or both.

While there has been little news out of Havana as to Castro’s condition — he has not been seen or heard on Cuban media for more than a week — politicians in Washington rushed into action on the Cuba issue, underscoring the importance of the tiny island that has been under Communist rule for 47 years.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in Washington scrambled to draft legislation that would give millions of dollars to dissidents who fight for democratic change.

Legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, fellow Floridian Mel Martinez, Majority Leader Bill Frist and others would authorize as much as $80 million over two years, paying half of it almost immediately, to dissidents and nongovernmental organizations on the island.

Also on Wednesday in Washington, Martinez, Nelson and Cuban-American Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart held a previously scheduled meeting with members of Bush’s National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security to discuss Cuba’s transition to democracy.

Afterward, the Diaz-Balart brothers and Ros-Lehtinen, all Republicans from Miami, flew to South Florida and held a press conference at the Miami International Airport.

There, the three lawmakers said the Bush administration would be making several announcements regarding Cuba in the coming days. The lawmakers refused to give examples of any changes in policy, but said “we will see announcements even in immigration policy.”

Relaxing the policy to allow any Cuban admission to the U.S. would not only encourage an exodus from the impoverished Caribbean country, but it also would be difficult to explain to the tens of thousands of immigrants from other countries, said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow and Cuba expert at the University of Miami.

“As a Cuban-American, I think with my heart: let them all in. As an academic, I think: how do you explain that to the Mexicans, how do you explain that to the Haitians?,” said Gomez. “It becomes a political hot potato.”

Making the policy stricter could stir dissent within Cuba, said Gomez.

“That in itself could put pressure on the Cuban people,” he said. “But it could be counterproductive. If people are taking to the streets, it could backfire on the U.S., and then we would be in the position of having to react to high level of civil unrest in Cuba.”

Terry McCoy, a Latin American studies professor at the University of Florida, said administration officials should tread lightly when tinkering with the “wet foot-dry foot” policy during such a delicate time.

“The risk is, you would trigger a mass exodus,” he said. “I think the federal government is quite concerned about that.”

Since the announcement of Castro’s illness, U.S. officials have urged Cubans not to take to the Florida Straits. U.S. officials have long feared that post-Castro instability would trigger a flood of emigration similar to waves in 1980 and 1994. So far, officials for the U.S. Coast Guard say, “there is absolutely no indication” of an increase in refugees coming across the 90-mile stretch of water.

Instead of encouraging Cubans to flee their country, U.S. officials are urging Cubans to commit civil disobedience inside the island nation.

“The message will be, 'The United States stands with you,’”said Sen. Nelson. “Be ready to assert your independence.”

Even the president has expressed interest in changing the policy, but that interest may turn to action if the situation in Cuba becomes chaotic as Raul Castro takes control. President Bush visited Miami earlier this week, before the announcement of Castro’s illness. During his visit, the president told a local TV reporter that he would be open to revamping the “wet foot-dry foot” policy.

No one in the Florida delegation thinks the embargo or the travel restrictions to Cuba should be lifted now that Fidel Castro has ceded power to his brother.

“You would have to be really blind or really stupid to think that Fidel or Raul Castro are anything but bloody, torturing killing machines,” said Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who was born in Cuba and is Castro’s former nephew by marriage.

Then, in Spanish, Diaz-Balart said, “There will be no negotiations with Raul Castro.”

Sen. Martinez, also a Cuban immigrant, had two separate meetings at the White House — the previously scheduled one with Reps. Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen — and a meeting with President Bush and several other senators.

Martinez called the president “receptive” to his call for the immediate resumption of U.S. television transmissions into Cuba.

“I was very pleased. It was a good meeting. The president has a good pulse in the situation,” Martinez said.

Styled after the successful Radio Free Europe during the Cold War, the Radio and TV Marti program allows the U.S. government to communicate news and other information to Cubans. A permanent transmission platform is not yet operational, and Martinez said he has written a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, asking him to find a temporary transmitter.

Getting information to the Cuban people is especially important now when the Cuban government is transferring power in secret, Martinez said.

“They are trying to transfer power as quickly as possible and as cleverly as they can,” Martinez said. He said he had no new information about Castro’s condition.

Many in Miami’s Cuban exile community believe Castro is dead, which is one of the reasons why spontaneous celebrations have surfaced throughout Miami. Thousands of flag-waving Cubans have danced and cheered in the streets of Little Havana, the city’s oldest Cuban enclave.

But Cuban Communist Party members have been quick to denounce the Miami celebrations, and quick to reassure the Cuban people that “El Barbudo,” the bearded one, has a few more years of life left in him.

On Wednesday, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly gave one of the most detailed interviews regarding Castro and his health. Ricardo Alarcon told the radio program Democracy Now! that Castro is “doing well,” and that he has talked to the 79-year-old leader about Lebanon.

“I do not want to diminish the complexity of the situation, because always surgery, intestinal surgery, as any doctor can tell you, it’s a serious matter. And the recovery process is also some period of care, and he needs a lot of attention and care,” Alarcon said in the interview. “He’s in very good spirits, as always.”

Alarcon speculated that the Bush administration “would intervene militarily” in Cuba if they could.

Gomez, the Cuban affairs expert at the University of Miami, believes the U.S. would only intervene if a civil war broke out in Cuba and if leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez intervened on Raul Castro’s behalf.

“With Fidel Castro done, Hugo Chavez inherits the symbolic, new leader of the Latin American left,” said Gomez. “If Hugo comes to the aid of Cuba, it could force the U.S. into a position they might not want to be in.”

Times Staff Writer Alisa Ulferts and Times Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used as well. Tamara Lush can be reached at 727-893-8612 or at


[Last modified August 2, 2006, 22:49:54]

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