WORLD

DAMMING THE FLOOD

An exodus of Cuban refugees forces a change in Washington’s asylum policy

ANDREW BILSKI August 29 1994
WORLD

DAMMING THE FLOOD

An exodus of Cuban refugees forces a change in Washington’s asylum policy

ANDREW BILSKI August 29 1994

DAMMING THE FLOOD

WORLD

An exodus of Cuban refugees forces a change in Washington’s asylum policy

They have made the voyage by boat, by makeshift raft—even by sailboard. For thousands of Cubans, the 90 miles of open, shark-infested water between their Communist-ruled island and freedom in Florida has been a measure of both their desperation and resolve since 1959, when leftist guerrillas led by Fidel Castro overthrew right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista. Lately, the tide of refugees has risen dramatically: more than 7,000 have fled by sea so far this year, compared with 3,656 for all of 1993. Last week alone, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued or assisted at least 2,000 Cubans in the Florida Straits, the highest level since the two-month Mariel boat-lift of 1980 delivered 125,000 Cubans to American shores, including many criminals and mental patients. And in their

rush to escape, some refugees have reportedly resorted to deadly violence. Cuban officials claim that a policeman and a naval officer were killed during a recent spate of ferry hijackings.

The flood of asylum seekers clearly worried Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida, where most of the one-million-strong Cuban-American community lives. “Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, are lined up on Cuban shores, waiting to leave,” Chiles said on Thursday, declaring a state of emergency. “There is no effort by Castro to stop them. In fact, it looks like every effort is being made to encourage them.” After first ignoring Chiles’s call for federal assistance, a few hours later U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno made a late-night announcement that, “in an effort to deter more Cubans from risking their lives,” the United States would detain refugees who arrived without visas. The next day, President Bill Clinton said that refugees intercepted at sea would be taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—effectively reversing a 28-year-old U.S. policy of granting automatic political asylum to virtually any Cuban fleeing Castro’s Communist regime. Castro had blamed that policy for the growing exodus, saying that it encouraged illegal emigration and “terrorism and crime” by escaping asylum seekers. But at his news conference, Clinton accused Castro of “trying to export to the United States the political and economic crisis he has created in Cuba.”

Certainly, refugees are fleeing from political persecution in Communist Cuba, one of the last Cold War battlegrounds. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, the number of prisoners of conscience there has jumped dramatically in the past two years. The report says that many people are detained “because of their peaceful activities in unofficial, political, human rights, trade union and religious groups, or simply for voicing criticism of the government.” But the vast majority of Cubans are clearly escaping increasingly dire economic and social conditions.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and former east bloc abruptly cut 85 per cent of Cuba’s traditional trade and aid ties. The island’s sugar-exporting, oil-importing economy, already beset by a three-decadeold U.S. embargo, was devastated. Domestic production slumped, and imports last year were less than a quarter of the level in the

late 1980s. Castro recently told the national assembly that the country’s sugar harvest for 1993-1994 will be four million tonnes, down from a disastrously low 4.2 million tonnes last year and seven million tonnes in 19911992. Sugar production has been ravaged by a lack of everything from fuel and spare parts to fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, Cuba’s 11 million inhabitants face severe shortages of everything from basic groceries to electric power and cooking gas.

Some of the most glaring examples of deteriorating conditions can be seen in the areas of medicine and public health, once the pride of Cuba’s Communist revolution. Mercedes, who did not want her last name used, is a 67year-old retired doctor who recently spent a few days as a patient in a Havana hospital. “I was shocked,” she said. “The linen was wet. The dryers don’t work. The scalpels are washed with soap and cold water. You don’t know what you might catch.” Lacking hard currency, the government cannot buy needed medicines and vitamins abroad. Health professionals told Maclean’s about a rise in the number of cases of malnutrition, tuberculosis, meningitis, HIV infection and other diseases. “The most scary thing is that some of the diseases that are around now had been eradicated decades ago,” said Mercedes.

Economic and social conditions have become so acute that Canada restored humanitarian aid to Cuba on June 20 after a 16-year hiatus. (Canada’s 1978 suspension of aid followed Cuban military intervention in the Angolan war.) Ottawa announced that it will contribute about $1 million to nongovernmental organizations working within the impoverished country. That followed three Canadian shipments of wheat flour, skim milk and medical supplies worth $800,000 over the past year. Canada, which is home to between 5,000 and 8,000 people of Cuban descent, and Mexico are the only two countries in the Western Hemisphere that never broke relations with Castro’s government.

In a landmark speech in July, 1993, Castro embarked on a process of cautious economic change. His government has since legalized the possession and use of hard currency such as U.S. dollars, revamped the state farm system by creating a more autonomous co-operative system and allowed self-employment in a range of trades and services. However, Castro made it clear that the reforms are aimed at preserving the gains of socialism, not dismantling it. Indeed, last month Cuban authorities began cracking down on people suspected of getting rich illegally through black marketeering or the operation of proscribed en-

terprises, such as private restaurants.

Under a 1984 U.S.-Cuban bilateral agreement, Cubans with close family members in the United States are legally entitled to immigrate there. Washington earmarks 20,000 such entry visas a year for Cubans. But last year only 964 Cubans were actually issued visas by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which functions as an unofficial embassy. In the first six months of this year, another 1,200 Cubans were granted visas. With legal emigration at a trickle, some observers say that the vast majority of disgruntled Cubans have no other option than to attempt the perilous journey to freedom on rickety boats.

Until last week’s policy reversal by the Clinton administration, they did so because a 1966 U.S. law, the Cuban Adjustment Act, automatically grants political asylum to Cubans fleeing their country, and makes them eligible to apply for permanent resident status after living in the United States for just one year. The ostensible reason for the law is that Cubans are leaving a Communist regime and, as such, deserve political asylum. A more practical basis is the political clout wielded by the hardline Cuban American National Foundation and other powerful lobby groups, especially in voterich south Florida.

Human-rights advocates have criticized the U.S. law, saying that it discriminates against potential refugees from other countries, such as Haiti, who have no such advantage when they apply for political asylum. Haitians must show that they have a wellfounded fear of persecution in their homeland—a claim that many fail to substantiate. Last month, the White House announced that Haitian boat people would no longer be eligible for resettlement in the United States. Nearly 15,000 Haitians are currently housed at the heavily fortified U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, a 45-square-mile site on Cuba’s southeast corner that the United States gained in 1903 under an unbreakable lease agreement. The Haitians will now be joined by Cuban asylum seekers.

In Key West, Fla., last week, a beleaguered Gov. Chiles said that he might call out the Naonal Guard to help cope with the flood of refugees, adding that action could come in a matter of days. Chiles, a Democrat who faces a tough re-election fight in November, is under conflicting pressures from anti-Castro Cuban lobbyists and irate taxpayers who worry about the costs of absorbing the new arrivals. As he spoke, a Coast Guard boat docked and unloaded 50 more Cubans, many of them bedraggled and badly sunburned. Even after Clinton’s policy reversal on asylum seekers, dozens continued to set off in rafts from a beach east of Havana. Said one Cuban as he watched some of his countrymen piling into a flimsy vessel made of inner tubes and wood: “Nothing’s going to stop people from going.”

ANDREW BILSKI

LEONID MAXIMENKOV