Published Wednesday, September 1, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Cuba toughens policy on refugees

Illegal emigrants barred from return

Herald Staff Writer

In an effort to discourage unlawful emigration and demonstrate its determination to uphold its promises to Washington, Havana has announced that any Cuban who left illegally after Sept. 9, 1994, will not be allowed to return to the island.

The ban ends Havana's 1993 policy of allowing those who fled illegally to return home after they have spent at least five years abroad.

An Aug. 26 notice from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to the six U.S. travel agents who handle trips to Cuba said the new ban had been adopted for an ``indefinite period.

The ban applies to the few thousand balseros who have arrived in Florida since the effective date, but it is not clear if it covers the thousands of Cubans who left legally on short trips, and then stayed abroad.

U.S. Customs officials in Miami said they recorded 3,109 Cuban boat people making landfall in South Florida since since 1996, but had no numbers for 1995 or 1994.

Cuban Interests Section spokesman Luis Fernandez said the policy shift was designed to provide a strong disincentive to illegal migration, one of the most delicate issues in U.S.-Cuba relations in recent months.

The disclosure of the new policy comes just one week after Cuba held a public trial of three accused people-smugglers, two of them Florida residents, on charges that could earn them terms of life in prison. A decision in the case is pending.

The defendants are among the 40 U.S.-based people smugglers Cuba claims to have captured in recent years.

Castro hinted at change

President Fidel Castro hinted at the change in policy in an Aug. 3 speech in the northern city of Matanzas, but Cuban officials made no more mention of it until the Interests Section issued its Aug. 26 note to travel agents.

Some 110,000 Cubans living in the United States visit the island each year, mostly aboard Miami-Havana flights, but many also travel through third countries such as Mexico and the Bahamas.

But one Cuban exile in Miami said Havana's decision may backfire. If they are banned from returning to Cuba to see relatives, he said, recently arrived exiles may instead opt to try to smuggle their families out of the island.

U.S. officials said the new ban shows a Cuba eager to uphold its end of a Sept. 9, 1994, emigration pact with Washington, which sought to discourage risky, illegal emigration by boat and raft by expanding legal departures.

``This would indicate very strongly that they are meeting their end of the deal . . . and trying to dissuade illegal departures by peaceful means, said a U.S. State Department official.

Drastic measure

Although Cuba timed the ban on the day that it signed the migration agreement with Washington, U.S. officials said the 1994 pact did not require Cuba to undertake such a drastic measure.

``To indefinitely prohibit citizens from returning to their country would also be a violation of human rights,'' the State Department official added.

Under the 1994 pact, Cuba promised to take no reprisals against would-be refugees captured and returned by the U.S. Coast Guard, and Washington promised to issue at least 20,000 visas per year to Cubans to promote legal emigration.

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana has already handed out nearly 23,000 visas so far in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, the State Department official said.

Early on in Castro's 40-year-old regime, Cuba would not allow the return of anyone who left illegally -- or many who had met all legal requirements for emigration. But as time passed, Havana began easing its restrictions, and in the late 1970s began allowing return visits by large numbers of Cuban exiles who had been living abroad for years.

The 125,000 refugees who left in the 1980 Mariel boatlift were first allowed to return to Cuba after 12 years. The 35,000 who left during the 1993 rafter crisis were then allowed to return after spending five years out of the country.

People-smuggling industry

But illegal migrations have turned into a major people-smuggling industry in recent months. The U.S. Coast Guard alleges that many of the smugglers are refugees who left in the rafter crisis and return aboard speedboats to pick up relatives and paying customers.

U.S. officials have been watching Cuba's handling of illegal exits with special concern in recent months because of fears Castro might unleash a mass exodus like Mariel to relieve the growing pressure of popular discontent due to a stagnant economy.

Castro has made some thinly veiled threats, but in his Matanzas speech he also vowed that he would continue to meet the requirements of his 1994 agreement with Washington.

``Here and now I am categorically warning that there is not the slightest possibility that Cuba . . . will authorize mass exits of illegal migrants, he declared.

Herald staff writer Elaine DeValle contributed to this report.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald