WASHINGTON — In an announcement that stunned Cubans and their relatives in this country, President Clinton said Friday that refugees from Fidel Castro's communist nation will no longer receive preferential treatment from the United States or special help in resettling in this country.
"Today I have ordered that illegal refugees from Cuba will not be allowed to enter the United States," he declared.
He ordered the Coast Guard--backed by the Navy--to interdict refugees at sea and take them to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Refugees who make it across the Florida Straits will be detained while their cases are reviewed for eligibility to remain in this country.
Clinton made it clear that the plan is a sweeping new policy, rather than a temporary arrangement, that permanently reverses nearly 30 years of precedent.
Determined to avoid a repeat of the 1980 Mariel boat lift, which saw 125,000 Cubans enter the country in a seaborne exodus, Clinton said that Castro is again trying to export his nation's political and economic crises to the United States.
"This action is a cold-blooded attempt to maintain the Castro grip on Cuba and to divert attention from his failed communist policies," Clinton said at an afternoon press conference at the White House. "Let me be clear: The Cuban government will not succeed in any attempt to dictate American immigration policy."
Clinton vowed that there would be no repeat of the 1980 experience--in which throngs of people, including some with criminal records, mental problems or contagious diseases--were turned loose from Cuban shores aboard boats bound for Florida.
"We had 120,000 people sent to this country as a deliberate attempt . . . to export all the problems of Cuba to the United States," Clinton said. "We tried it that way once. It was wrong then and it's wrong now, and I'm not going to let it happen again."
Florida authorities welcomed the Clinton announcement but refugee advocates and some Republicans deplored it.
Cuban Americans received the news with mixed emotions. Some worried that their friends and relatives still in Cuba would have no hope of reaching this country. Others were gratified that Castro's effort to rid himself of political foes was being thwarted and that the Mariel boat lift, which caused a backlash against Cuban Americans, will not be repeated.
Although Clinton did not mention it, the 1980 Mariel refugee flood was one of the central issues in his defeat that year in a bid for reelection as governor of Arkansas. Hundreds of \o7 Marielistas \f7 temporarily housed at Ft. Chafee, Ark., rioted and many escaped, provoking widespread citizen outrage.
Clinton at the time blamed federal authorities for not giving him enough money or troops to properly police the Cuban refugees.
More than 7,000 Cubans have landed in Florida this year, nearly twice the total for all of 1993. In August alone, the Coast Guard has rescued more than 3,500 Cuban refugees from the Florida Straits, including 745 who were picked up Friday, the biggest single day total since the 1980 exodus.
Castro has not publicly urged his citizens to flee but Florida and federal officials accuse him of tacitly encouraging the exodus to lessen political pressure on his regime.
Clinton is expected to announce today a series of additional steps to intensify diplomatic and economic pressure on the Castro regime, including sharply reducing the $300-per-quarter limit on the amount of money that Cuban Americans can send to relatives in Cuba and limiting the number of charter flights between the United States and Cuba.
In addition, the United States is expected to ask the U.N. Security Council later this month to formally condemn the Castro regime for alleged human rights abuses. And U.S. authorities plan to increase the number of anti-Castro radio broadcasts beamed to Cuba--possibly with the aid of military aircraft.
White House officials said that Clinton outlined the package during a meeting late Friday with Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and a group of 10 Cuban American leaders.
Administration strategists said the limit on remittances, as funds sent to relatives by Cuban Americans are called, could further damage the weak Cuban economy. Officials said Clinton still had not decided how sharply to reduce the $300-a-quarter ceiling.
American ships will patrol the waters between Cuba and the South Florida coastline. Some vessels will be diverted from duty off Haiti and from anti-drug missions, Pentagon officials said.
Until Friday, Cubans reaching American soil or picked up at sea were rapidly released into American society after only cursory screening under terms of a 1966 law, the Cuban Adjustment Act. Many were released to family or friends in Miami while their applications for permanent residency were considered.