Contradictory Cuba Policies
Explain US-Cuba policy, my friends ask. Last week's prison riot occurred in Louisiana where Cuban prisoners had served their sentences, yet remained locked up because they didn't qualify to stay in the US. They had committed crimes before gaining residency rights. Havana averted a worse -- indeed, bloody -- crisis by agreeing under a 1984 Treaty to accept these men. Before that, the Coast Guard rescued Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban boy, clinging to a life preserver. His great uncle in Miami says the kid has the right to stay here. The boy's father in Cuba, however, claims parental rights. Incidentally, his maternal and paternal grandparents also live in Cuba and want him sent home.
But, the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, a special law that applies only to Cubans, means that six year old Elian -- i.e.; those speaking for him -- can ask for "parolee" status and permanent residency one year later. The anti-Castro fanatics in southern Florida mobilized around this issue shortly after Elian's mother and her boy friend drowned in a ship wreck. Regularly, smugglers from Florida collect up to $10,000 per Cuban for an illegal trip to Florida. The facts surrounding the terms of transport for this particular ill-fated voyage have yet to emerge.
The important fact is that the US Consular office in Havana issues 20,000 legal visas to Cubans each year. Under the 1995 Migration Treaty, the US had agreed to return all Cubans caught at sea. But the Cuban Adjustment Act contradicts this agreement. It says that by touching US soil Cubans earn the right to apply for special status and remain here. Cuban Vice President Ricardo Alarcon insists that US officials had agreed to work hard to repeal that 1966 law. They have not done so.
After the 1995 Treaty, however, Coast Guard cutters have routinely caught and sent back Cubans picked up at sea. Smugglers try to evade the Coast Guard so Cubans can, by placing a toe on a Florida beach, qualify for rapid residency.
In other words, the wet-footed Cuban returns to Cuba, the dry foot stays as a political refugee -- which Clinton Administration officials claim they don't want.
To complicate further the murky situation, US-backed Radio Marti broadcasts into Cuba information that encourages Cubans to come here illegally while, simultaneously, US Consular officers assure hundreds of thousands of Cubans that they can come to the US only through legal processes. The visa process lets the government select desirable Cubans -- read, white, skilled professionals with affluent families living in the United States.
In practice, we encourage Cubans we don't want to engage smugglers, whom we abhor, to evade Coast Guard patrols. The "undesirables" reach our shores illegally and, logically, some have committed crimes shortly after arrival or become public charges. The smugglers also undercut the orderly visa process for "desirable" Cubans. It costs taxpayers millions to support both programs.
Behind this confusion lies US policy: Bring down the Castro government by almost any means necessary. Thus, policy reasoning goes, Cubans escaping -- coming here illegally -- undermine Castro's government. Therefore, we should support Cubans wishing to escape tyranny. But in reality, with election looming, most Floridians don't want more Cubans and neither party dares risk losing Florida.
So, the Administration routinely sign Migration accords with the Castro government, thereby acknowledging Castro's legitimacy and sole authority. This allows us to protect ourselves from large numbers of or "undesirable" Cubans.
These contradictions have erupted into crises. A 1961 failed invasion, a 1962 missile crisis, in 1980 more than 100,000 Cubans arriving unexpectedly from Mariel. In 1999, a kidnapped child and a prison riot have brought forth the crisis managers. The incongruous Cuba migration policies will almost certainly bring future crises.
Off the record, Administration officials admit the obsolescence of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, but they lack the courage and will to push it through Congress.
How to get a sensible policy that makes relations with Cuba into more routine affairs of state and not ideological explosion? Or must medical science first perfect the spinal transplant?
Saul Landau is the Hugh O. LaBounty Chair of Interdisciplinary Applied Knowledge at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, 3801 W. Temple Ave. Pomona, CA 91768