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Cuban Blockade Suggested if Flow of Refugees Persists : Immigration: Panetta hints at stronger measures as exodus continues. Guantanamo detention camp filling up.

August 22, 1994|JIM MANN and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said Sunday that the Clinton Administration would consider imposing a blockade of Cuba if measures adopted in the past few days fail to stop the exodus of refugees from the island.

"That's obviously one of the options that we would look at in the future as we see whether or not Castro begins to make some legitimate movement toward democracy," Panetta said on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley."

The vague talk of a blockade came as Administration officials appeared to be increasingly worried about the consequences of a continuing flood of Cubans leaving the island. "The outflow does not appear to be slowing," one White House official acknowledged Sunday. "It's going to take a few days to have it sink in (to Cubans) that after 30 years, you can no longer come to the United States."

Under the changes announced by President Clinton on Friday, Cuban refugees, who in the past were admitted without question into the United States, are now being picked up at sea, kept out of this country and taken to the Navy base at Guantanamo, Cuba.

Despite the new curbs, hundreds of Cubans attempting to make their way to America were again plucked out of the Florida Straits by the U.S. Coast Guard on Sunday.

Coast Guard officials in Key West, Fla., said at least 1,058 were picked up Sunday. On Saturday, 1,189 refugees were picked up, the most in a single day since 1980, when 125,000 Cubans sailed to Florida in five months during the Mariel boat lift.

The unabated exodus raises the prospect that Guantanamo--which is already housing Haitian refugees--will soon be filled with more Cubans than it can handle.

During the past few days, the Administration has been quietly searching for other countries in the Caribbean willing to accept some of the Cuban refugees. But so far it has not been able to find any nation willing to say publicly that it will take some of the Cubans. "We are making progress, and we hope to have something to announce within the week," insisted one U.S. official.

"The whole thrust here is to try to demagnetize, obviously, the flow of refugees that are coming toward this country," Panetta said in the ABC interview. "We were successful in doing that with the Haitian refugees. It took about a week to get the message across. Hopefully, we'll be successful in doing this with the Cubans."

Later Sunday, White House officials sought to downplay the importance of Panetta's comments about a blockade.

"I don't think he was foreshadowing anything," one Administration official told The Times. "I don't know of any discussions about a blockade." Another Administration official said Panetta's remarks were merely "a theoretical answer to a hypothetical question. . . . It does not reflect any ongoing planning or options under discussion."

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, whose personal intervention with the President last week helped prompt the changes in U.S. policy toward the Cuban refugees, said on Sunday that he would favor a blockade of Cuba if nothing else works.

"If Castro continues to escalate, continues to push the rafters out, other steps could follow. That's the feeling I get," said the Democratic governor, who met with Clinton in Washington on Saturday. ". . . I think the next one would be a blockade."

Carlos Solis, the vice director of the Transit Center for Cuban Refugees, which has served as a way station for rafters who made it to the United States over the last two years, applauded the idea of a blockade.

"I think that after 35 years, the best thing to do is to take a strong stand against Castro's tyranny," he said. "The conditions in Cuba are right. If they really enforce the blockade, Cuba will be free soon. We've been waiting for this for a long time."

Administration officials have justified the tougher immigration policy, in part, as a means of increasing the political pressure on Castro inside Cuba. The hope is that those who are forced to stay behind will work for political change on the island.

Over the past few years, the U.S. government has developed a classified contingency plan, called Operation Distant Shore, to stop a massive flow of refugees from Cuba to Florida, and this plan includes a naval blockade of the island.

"I hate the idea of people being picked up in boats," Moynihan said. ". . . Listen, those camps in Guantanamo are not going to be pretty."

Solis' group and other Cuban Americans say they are worried that the Coast Guard may be ill-equipped to save the hundreds of Cubans in the Straits.

"We are desperate about them," he said. "We know that while hundreds are being saved by the Coast Guard, many more are dying in the Florida Straits. They don't have enough ships or manpower to save everybody."

In addition to those brought to Guantanamo, at least one raft with a man, woman and child aboard made it all the way to Key West, and dozens more Cubans landed in the United States on cruise or cargo ships that had picked them up at sea.

These refugees were taken to the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Krome Detention Center near Miami, where they are being held indefinitely, according to Amy Otten, a spokeswoman for the INS in Miami. In all, there were 408 men, women and children at the facility.

"They might have a better chance eventually of staying in America" than their fellow refugees who are being taken to Guantanamo, Otten said, "although we are holding them in detention indefinitely, they may be able to claim asylum later."

"It's difficult to tell what will happen to any individual," she added. "A lot of these decisions are being considered at the highest level and have not yet been made."

Families of the refugees were able to visit them Sunday. The women and children were staying in dormitories and the men in tents at the facility.

Mann reported from Washington and Shogren from Key West.

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