American officials, speaking publicly and privately, denied Wednesday that the change in Cuban migration policy presaged any fundamental shift in Washington’s policy to Havana.
The new policy, made public on Tuesday, would allow most of the Cuban refugees being held at Guantanamo Bay, almost 21,000 of them, to enter the United States. At the same time, the administration announced that it would forcibly repatriate all those who flee from Cuba from now on.
The policy reversed an 8-monthold administration decision not to allow the Cubans being held in Guantanamo to enter the country. It also gave rise to speculation that the administration was planning a more daring shift in its Cuban policy.
Officials were at pains Wednesday, however, to stress that the policy reversal was determined purely by domestic concerns. These included the $1 million a day cost of the Guantanamo center, the fear of major unrest at the camps with the onset of summer and, perhaps worst of all, the nightmare of another Cuban boat exodus.
At his daily press briefing, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns stressed Wednesday that the agreement, negotiated in some secrecy by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff, covered only the migration issues announced by the administration on Tuesday. He also emphasized that policy toward Cuba is laid down by the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which commits any administration to a very clear course of action vis-a-vis Cuba.
The act is intended to promote “a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba through the application of appropriate pressures on the Cuban government and support for the Cuban people.”
The pressures included a tightened embargo on Cuba. The support, officials say, includes humanitarian assistance and improving Cubans’ access to information about the outside world.
Any moves by the Cuban government to adopt democratic reforms and respect human rights, the act says, will be met by “carefully calibrated” reductions of the sanctions.