WASHINGTON — Reagan Administration officials said Monday that Cuban immigration into the United States, suspended since 1985, will resume next month under an agreement that represents the strongest evidence to date of a warming in relations between Washington and Havana.
Final details of the accord were approved at a quiet meeting of Cuban and U.S. diplomats in Mexico last week, the officials said. It remains unclear why the Cubans changed their stand, but U.S. officials speculated that President Fidel Castro is seeking to expel political opponents through emigration, a tactic he has used as an outlet for dissent since coming to power Jan. 1, 1959.
For the United States, the agreement is a significant step toward a long-range goal of systematic Cuban immigration that would keep out such so-called "undesirables" as the criminals now held in U.S. prisons awaiting return to their island home, while allowing political dissidents to emigrate to the United States.
U.S.-Cuban relations have been chilly since the inauguration three years ago of Radio Marti, a U.S. government-operated radio station that broadcasts news, features and commentary in Spanish to Cuba from a transmitter in Florida. The station is named for 19th-Century Cuban patriot Jose Marti.
Cuba angrily suspended the immigration agreement May 20, 1985, the day Radio Marti went on the air. Castro's government denounced the station, which broadcasts on both standard and short-wave bands, as a "shameful provocation."
One Administration official said Monday that after immigration resumes, "we could be up to several hundred (Cuban immigrants) a month by the end of the year." The official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said that the number of immigrants will be limited at first, because screening procedures have been tightened to bar "undesirables."
Late last year, Cuba agreed to accept the return of criminals who came to the United States in 1980 when Castro opened the port of Mariel, allowing 125,000 people to sail away in a makeshift flotilla, and to work out details for resuming "normal" immigration. That agreement touched off prisoner revolts and hostage-taking in two U.S. institutions where the Cubans were being held. The uprisings ended only after Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III pledged that no Cuban would be sent home without a thorough review of his case.
"The Mexico meeting was very constructive," the Administration official said, using a word increasingly heard these days in State Department offices that deal with Cuba. "We are interested in seeing that the resumption of normal immigration proceeds in an orderly way, and so, apparently, is Havana."
Indeed, the leadership of the Cuban delegation indicated the importance that the Castro government attaches to the matter. Ricardo Alarcon, a deputy foreign minister and spokesman for North American policy, led the Mexico City group. Chief negotiator for the U.S. side was Kenneth N. Skoug Jr., director of the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs.
U.S. officials said that Cuban physicians will help give medical examinations to the prospective immigrants. Because of budget restrictions, the officials said, the U.S. Public Health Service can send only limited numbers of its staff to process candidates at the U.S. Interests Section, America's quasi-embassy in Havana.
"One reason we won't be getting too many immigrants at first is that the health check must be done carefully," the Administration said. "We have to make sure that nobody with AIDS or other communicable diseases is accepted."
He said that the U.S. Interests Section must also contact people who applied for entry after the immigration agreement was signed in December, 1984, to find out if they still want to leave. Would-be emigrants will then be summoned to present their documents, after which they must be interviewed and given physical examinations.
"We will probably have only a few dozen in the first month, but we should be up to several hundred by the end of the year," the official said. "Although the immigration law permits up to 20,000 immigrants from one country in a year, I doubt if we'll get up to that level very soon."
Priority for Relatives
In theory, nearly everyone in Cuba should be eligible to emigrate to the United States; in practice, the law grants priority to close relatives of U.S. citizens. Because of the backlog of applicants, relatives of U.S. citizens are expected to fill all available places in the near future.
In addition to this so-called "normal" immigration, about 3,000 former political prisoners and their immediate families have already started to come to the United States under the special category of political refugees, a movement that will continue in parallel with the new, larger flow.
In 1965, Cuba's Marxist regime permitted twice-daily "Freedom Flights" that resulted in an exodus of about 350,000 people to the United States before Castro shut off the traffic in 1971. These immigrants, like those who had come in the first years after the triumph of Castro's revolution, were all admitted under emergency conditions, and there was no "normal" immigration from Cuba until the signing of the December, 1984, agreement, which was in effect for less than six months.