Laden with about 21,000 Cuban boat people languishing at Guantanamo Bay, the Clinton administration abruptly changed course Tuesday and said most of the refugees will be allowed to enter the United States.
But they will be the last ones welcome.
As part of a secret agreement hammered out with Cuba, the administration said future rafters caught at sea will be returned immediately to the island nation. For the first time in recent history, Cubans will be granted admittance to the United States only through normal immigration channels.
“Cubans must know that the only way to come to the United States is by applying in Cuba,” U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said.
News of the sweeping pact was met with hope and dismay on all sides.
The flip-flops angered CubanAmerican leaders, disturbed those who want stronger immigration control and prompted two State Department officials to step down in protest.
In Miami, hard-line Cuban American leader Jorge Mas Canosa called the new arrangement “totally worthless,” as WCMQ radio talk-show host Tomas Garcia Fuste called it “another Bay of Pigs for Cubans.” At the same time, Cuban Americans in Florida rejoiced over the impending release of the detainees, who include many of their relatives.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., joined other Republicans in denouncing the “secret deal” with Castro, and called for swift congressional hearings. Dole said he doubted that Americans could protect would-be refugees from reprisals from the Cuban government, adding: “I don’t think we would have forced people over the Berlin Wall.”
At Guantanamo itself, there was predictable joy.
In phone calls from the U.S. naval base, camp residents told Fuste over the air that spontaneous celebrations had broken out.
“They are happy, dancing, there are fiestas in each camp,” said Fuste.
The reasons for Clinton’s decision amount to money and fear - the cost of running refugee camps and warnings that the single men held there were about to riot.
Just last month, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., returned from Guantanamo with grim news for Clinton.
“I told the president in the strongest possible terms that the current policy was unsustainable,” Graham said Tuesday. “There was going to be an explosion at Guantanamo. And there was going to be increasing American public resistance to spending such a large amount of money for what would increasingly be perceived to be a concentration-like camp.
“So, we had to have a strategy that depopulated Guantanamo.”
Clinton’s decision was designed to meet two goals: clear the refugee camps while also discouraging attempts by other Cubans to flee to Florida.
The double-edged decision was also designed to mollify the CubanAmerican community, which Clinton has assiduously courted, while also appearing to toughen immigration control.
The president solicited support from Gov. Lawton Chiles and Graham but did not consult most other members of Congress, who were disgruntled on Tuesday.
“He should have consulted every member from South Florida,” said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., R-Fla.
Negotiations on the new deal with Cuba also seemed to surprise the Cuban Desk at the State Department. Dennis Hays, director, and Nancy Mason, deputy director, asked to be reassigned rather than defend a policy formed behind their backs and without their support.
Clinton apparently was swayed by military commanders, who have always chafed at the mission of refugee control.
They reinforced Graham’s advice, warning of rioting and potential injury to the Cubans and the 6,000 soldiers guarding them.
And they complained that the estimated $1 million a day spent on maintaining the camps - plus another $100 million planned for turning the camps into a permanent facility - would be better spent on military readiness.
“We were moving down a trail where there was a distinct possibility of some of those servicemen and some of those Cubans being hurt,” said Gen. John Sheehan, commander of the U.S. Atlantic Command.
Three civil disturbances, mostly confined to rock throwing, already had erupted at refugee camps over the past few months - two at Guantanamo and another in Panama.
“There was a potential for riots and major unrest,” Graham said he found when he visited the Guantanamo camps.
“Particularly if you end up with a population of 15,000 largely older adolescents and younger adults - single males without any hope of leaving Guantanamo.”
Clinton had seen firsthand the consequences of a Cuban riot. He had lost re-election as governor soon after Cuban criminals rampaged through a prison in his home state of Arkansas.
The double back-flip has its own political risks, though.
Administration officials on Tuesday were forced to defend actions they once said they would never take.
Asked about her adamant refusal last year to allow the Guantanamo Cubans into the United States, Reno said she was striving at the time to deter other arrivals and to stave off an immigration emergency.
“What we have tried to avoid is a massive flow into South Florida in ways that could adversely affect the community,” Reno said.
Now facing new pressures, the administration hoped to clear the camps without inviting another wave of migrants.
The loud and angry response on Tuesday, however, indicated that the consequences will not go away quietly.