The Magazine

Cuba Libre

Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By FRED BARNES, FOR THE EDITORS
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"PRESIDENT BUSH is the most pro-democracy, pro-freedom president on Cuba that we've ever had," says Emilio Gonzalez, who recently stepped down as the National Security Council's expert on Cuba. Maybe so. Bush has vowed to block any attempt to repeal the trade embargo against Cuba. He's transformed the American interest section in Havana into a proactive spearhead for supporting Cuban dissidents. Bush raises the Cuba issue when he meets with European and Latin American leaders. He's recruited the European Union to campaign for human rights in Cuba, and he's persuaded Europeans to invite Cuban dissidents to events at their Havana embassies, infuriating Fidel Castro. He's backed Osvaldo Paya, the Cuban human rights leader and recipient of the E.U.'s Sakharov Prize who met recently with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But there exists an appalling gap in Bush's policy toward Castro: the treatment of refugees escaping Cuba. Bush has continued the refugee policy of the Clinton administration known as "wet feet, dry feet." Under it, a refugee is sent back to Cuba unless he or she gets a foot on dry American land. This has led to wrenching scenes on Florida's shores of Cubans struggling to reach the beach--and potential freedom--as U.S. Coast Guard personnel battle to keep them in the water. Most refugees, of course, never reach American soil. In July, a dozen Cubans who'd stolen a boat were grabbed by the Coast Guard miles off the Florida shore and, following negotiations with the Cuban government, were returned to Cuba, only to face 10-year jail sentences. Bush officials regarded this as a victory of sorts, since three Cubans trying to reach the United States last spring suffered an even worse fate. They were caught by Castro's forces and executed.

This refugee policy is the result of an agreement between President Clinton and Castro. It caused Elián Gonzáles, who'd been rescued at sea, to be seized from a Miami home and flown back to Cuba. Under it, 20,000 Cubans are allowed to emigrate annually, with Castro deciding who goes and who doesn't. Castro uses the quota as a tool for suppressing dissent. If a Cuban is docile, he may have a chance to leave. But if he presses for freedom in his homeland, his chances are nil. To get out, a Cuban must pipe down. Castro deals with dissidents in other brutal ways. He cracked down on dozens last spring and sentenced them to long jail terms. Meanwhile, their family members lose jobs, their kids are expelled from school, and they lose their homes.

Why is the Bush administration clinging to a Clinton policy that's a matter of presidential discretion, not federal law? Five words: fear of another Mariel boatlift. In 1980, Castro cleaned out his jails and insane asylums and sent a flotilla of some 125,000 refugees to Florida. The sudden influx created some havoc in Miami and even in Arkansas, where violence and rioting by Cubans held at Fort Chafee contributed to Bill Clinton's defeat for reelection as governor. If you've seen the movie "Scarface," which starred Al Pacino as a refugee who becomes a crazed cocaine dealer, you'll understand the trouble that Castro caused in the United States. Averting a repeat of Mariel is the governing principle of Bush's refugee policy.

Yes, Castro is quite capable of mounting another boatlift. But the question is whether Bush should allow this fear of another Mariel to make Castro, in effect, the architect of American refugee policy. The answer is no. Another boatlift would not be pretty. And other nations are likely to be as reluctant to take in Cuban refugees now as they were in 1980. But Mariel was a problem, not a disaster. And many of the Mariel Cubans were legitimate refugees, as many in a second boatlift would be. The truth is America could handle a fresh surge of Cuban refugees, perhaps not painlessly, but without the turmoil and political fallout of 1980.

A simple fact should stand out in Bush's mind. The Cold War with the Soviet Union is over, but the Cold War with Cuba is not. Needless to say, Castro is not a leader with whom the United States should comfortably negotiate the terms of a refugee policy. The Bush administration has already set an unfortunate precedent by doing just that in the case of the 12 Cubans in July. So as a first step, Bush needs to repudiate this precedent explicitly and order the officials at the State and Justice departments who set it to reverse themselves.