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The barbarity of Fidel Castro's regime became plain to the world last week—and so did the immorality of a Clinton-era policy toward Cubans attempting to escape Castro's tropical gulag. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
Last Friday, Castro sent three men who attempted to escape to <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Florida by hijacking a boat to the firing squad. His brutality is not surprising; but this event is especially disturbing because these men would probably be alive today if not for the Clinton-era "wet feet-dry feet" policy that allows Cuban refugees who reach American shores to stay in the U.S., but orders those intercepted at sea to be sent back to Cuba.
On April 2, the would-be hijackers seized a boat at knifepoint, made it to the Florida Straits, but ran out of fuel before making it to Florida. Prior to May 2, 1994, all they would have had to do was to make it to U.S. territorial waters and wait for the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue them and take them to shore. However, since that date, the Coast Guard has been under orders to send Cubans intercepted at sea back to Castro's socialist paradise.
Our government should not encourage hijacking—but neither should it send people back to be persecuted under the authority of a tyrannical government that we do not even recognize. Trying Cuban hijackers in the U.S. would guarantee them a fair trial, something that they are unlikely to get in Cuba. Further, in the case of Cuba, there are two major extenuating circumstances.
First, Castro's government owns everything. Seizing just about anything in Cuba constitutes the taking of Cuban government assets.
Second, the right of free and legal exit from Cuba is essentially nonexistent. The number of U.S. visas is limited. A lottery awards the visas, but lottery winners must get approval from the Cuban government to leave the country, even after they have been granted entry into the U.S. Under such circumstances, desperate acts to escape are understandable, and in most cases forgivable.
Consider the story of Cuban dentist Noris Pena, who defected to the U.S. in 2001 while in Zimbabwe. Her parents and brothers were granted visas through the lottery. But, because she declared herself a political refugee, Castro's government denied her family members exit papers. "They were told the only way they were going to get off the island was on a raft," Pena told Newsday. Her family then decided to pay a smuggler to carry them to Florida. But Castro's secret police found out about their escape plan and met them before they reached the boat. They jailed Pena's father for three days and seized the family's life savings of 48,000 Cuban pesos (about $2,500). "If people use smugglers to leave Cuba, I think it's . . . a crazy idea," says Pena. "If my family told me they were going to try it, I would tell them no. But would I do it if I was still in Cuba? I think yes."
The case of the Pena family isn't rare: The families of those who try to leave Cuba are branded "counterrevolutionaries" and subject to reprisals. Most Americans would not tolerate their government facilitating this kind of repression. But in 1994, Bill Clinton did just that—and his policy continues.
A New Policy
In 1994, Cubans took to the waves en masse. The Clinton administration, fearing a mass exodus, ordered the Coast Guard to intercept rafters at sea and detain them at the Guantanamo naval base, where thousands of Cubans lingered in limbo throughout that summer. Meanwhile, Clinton sent undersecretary of state for political affairs Peter Tarnoff to meet a Cuban envoy to hash out a migration deal in secret.
On September 9, 1994, the U.S. and Cuban governments announced the agreement simultaneously. Most of the refugees at Guantanamo would be allowed to enter the U.S., but from then on, all Cubans intercepted at sea would be returned to Cuba, while all Cubans who made it to shore would be allowed to stay and apply for residence. Also, the U.S. would issue up to 20,000 visas a year to Cubans wishing to emigrate—a move that puts potential emigrants at the mercy of the Castro government, which can issue or deny exit permits for any reason Castro's henchmen see fit. Even worse, those asking permission to leave are often branded as counterrevolutionaries and subjected to a variety of reprisals.
Further, the agreement is of questionable legality. Not only did the Clinton administration enter into a secret agreement with a government the United States does not recognize, but it unilaterally amended an act of Congress—the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act—which eases the political-refugee qualification requirement for Cubans fleeing Castro's rule.
"The U.S. seems to be saying that the Act does not apply because Cubans will not be allowed to reach our shores," said former Havana U.S. Interests section head Wayne Smith in May 1995. Others who are knowledgeable about Cuba were more blunt. State Department Cuban affairs coordinator Dennis Hays and his deputy, Nancy Mason, asked to be reassigned in protest of Clinton's action. "I was being asked to enforce a policy based on an agreement that we didn't have the ability or the will to enforce," says Hays. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.). "It's unconscionable. Never before in our history have we entered into an agreement with a Communist dictatorship where we systematically return refugees to that Communist country."
Oh, and the agreement states that the Cuban government will not carry out reprisals against individuals intercepted at sea and returned to the island. If you believe that claim, I've got a bridge to sell you.
The "wet feet-dry feet" policy allows individuals who can prove during their at-sea interviews that they face immediate persecution if they return to Cuba to seek asylum. But in most cases, this is impossible to prove. Most Cubans who attempt to flee and fail face reprisals because they attempted to flee. And reprisals can be subtle, such as the denial of employment. (With the exception of a few luxury Varadero Beach resorts from which most Cubans are barred, the government is the only employer of any significance in Cuba.)
The change in the law stemmed the flow of rafters temporarily, but it did not stop Cubans from trying to cross the Florida Straits. Rather, it created a thriving new black market: human smuggling. Smugglers charge as much as $10,000 a person for the crossing, a prohibitive sum for most Cubans. "In effect," noted Newsday reporter Hugo Kugiya, the policy "made defection by ocean crossing nearly impossible for the poor masses, but created a high-priced smuggling industry for those who could afford it."
Another negative side effect of this policy has been violence against Coast Guard personnel. Since 1994, Cuban refugees avoid rather than seek U.S. Coast Guard vessels, which they now see as a de facto extension of Castro's border guard that wants to send them back. Desperation is so great that some refugees have struggled with Coast Guard personnel within sight of land—and some have even deliberately injured themselves to be taken ashore for emergency medical treatment.
An Increasingly Paranoid Regime
Reliable news from Cuba is difficult to come by, but recent events suggest that the situation there is getting more desperate, and the regime more paranoid. "The point that people are missing is, why are people still so desperate to come here [that] they are risking their lives on the high seas?" Miami immigrant advocate and attorney Cheryl Little told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. The recent executions coincided with a wide-ranging crackdown on dissidents, and followed two high-profile airplane hijackings, on March 19 and April 1, that made it safely to the U.S.
Many Americans worry that allowing large numbers of Cuban refugees to enter the United States would overwhelm social services and create serious social problems like those that followed the 1980 Mariel exodus. But times are different today. A large number of Cubans have family in the U.S. (and not just in Florida and New Jersey), and many recent arrivals would be quite happy to return to a free Cuba.
Castro no longer has his Soviet backers, and the precedent of East Germany sets a promising scenario: an exodus so massive that it would bring down one of the world's last Stalinist dictatorships. In 1989, Erich Honecker found himself dictator of a country that was quickly running out of people. A similar situation would not augur well for Castro.
As a general rule, the U.S. government should not reward people for trying to enter the country illegally. To do so punishes immigrants who play by the rules. But the legal/illegal distinction is impossible regarding Cuba—a totalitarian state where legal exit is not an option.
Castro's recent actions send a clear message: Dissent will not be tolerated, and will be suppressed with brute force. To send back people trying to escape Castro's island prison is not just inhumane—it's criminal. It is not a stretch to say that were it not for the "wet feet-dry feet" policy, the three men shot last Friday would be alive today.
President Bush is under no illusions as to the nature of Castro's regime, which he has said "routinely stifles all the freedoms that make us human." However, his administration has yet to reverse this policy (though reports  suggest the White House is considering sanctions against Castro's Cuba). It should do so. The duplicity that brought this law about may have been par for the course for the Clinton administration, but it is unworthy of Bush, and of America.