HAVANA -- With Cuba vowing to further ease its emigration restrictions, the United States may face thousands of youthful potential defectors in the coming months and an embarrassing bureaucratic nightmare.
Recent statements by top Cuban officials, including Carlos Aldana, the government's No. 3 man, suggest that Cuba may soon permit anyone to leave the country as long as he has a ticket and a place to go.
The new policy could open the door to millions of disenchanted younger people seeking to escape the country's crippled economy and its stultifying culture.
It would permit thousands to apply for U.S. tourist visas, hoping to defect once they arrive in the United States, where by law they cannot be deported, diplomats here say.
"This threatens to surpass the Mariel boat lift in terms of the numbers," said a Western diplomat, referring to the 1980 decision by President Fidel Castro to let 125,000 Cubans flee to the United States.
Until 1989, Cuba had limited overseas family visits to people least likely to defect -- those 60 and older.
But with the inclusion of younger people and considering Cuba's harsh
economic crisis, "I could see the potential of as many as a half-million wanting to defect," said the Western diplomat.
Because of eased age restrictions, the number of non-immigrant U.S. visas shot up from 2,270 issued in fiscal 1988 to an expected 120,000 applicants this fiscal year.
Defections for Cubans are much easier to accomplish in the United States than they are for other nationalities. Once a Cuban arrives in the United States, he simply declares he doesn't want to go back. The United States is barred from deporting him by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, said a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington.
The defector then waits 18 months to establish legal residency and applies for citizenship, which is invariably granted.
Many U.S. officials remain skeptical about a sudden invasion of potential Cuban defectors and say that in any event it could be controlled.
"If we suddenly got a whole bunch of 18-year-olds, all wanting to go to Disneyland, I'd be reasonably suspicious they were going to defect and deny them a visa," said a U.S. diplomat.
While only a few of the older people have defected so far, there is some evidence that the younger people would not return, especially if the economy worsens. Many recently told visiting foreign journalists that they had little hope the economy would improve and that they would leave if given the opportunity.
The Coast Guard rescued a record 461 Cubans in Florida waters last year at a time when Havana was shocked by the number of prominent defectors, ranging from artists and medical teams to a trade minister. Nearly all cited the economy as the reason for leaving.
Cuba has always allowed foreign travel for musicians and other goodwill ambassadors. But if the government drops its restrictions, the floodgates would be open to all citizens who, with the financial help of overseas relatives and friends, would be able to travel to the United States.
Washington's only control would be in the granting of the non-immigrant visas by the U.S. Special Interest Section here. The tiny Interest Section has one full-time visa employee, who is occasionally aided by colleagues.
The section is already on overload.
Based on the first two months of this fiscal year, it is estimated that there will be 110,000 to 120,000 applicants but that only 65,000 can be handled, said a State Department official in Washington.
A wholesale refusal to grant the visas would be embarrassing to the Bush administration and would raise the ire of the powerful Cuban-American community in south Florida, a U.S. diplomat admitted.
Domingo Moreira, a member of the Cuban American Foundation's executive board, said in Miami that powerful hard-line anti-Castro groups backed enforcement of U.S. immigration laws but otherwise had no position on the possible influx.
"If there is reason to believe the applicant is going to defect, he can be rejected," said a U.S. immigration official in Washington. "But who would want to be the one to deny a guy the right to visit his brother in Miami? What would you tell the brother and his congressman?"
Anticipating the easing of travel restrictions, the State Department has prepared a press guideline outlining the U.S. position and welcoming "any decision that results in increased freedom for Cuban citizens."
"This will present the administration with a put-up-or-shut-up situation," said Arlene Alligood, former head of the National Council on U.S.-Cuban Relations. "If they say they can't process the applications, it will expose what the policy is: Keeping people there to worsen the island's economy, while making hay out of well-known defectors."
The current increases in non-immigrant visas stem from a Cuban government decision to lower the age restrictions for men from 65 to 55 and for women from 60 to 50. Last fall it was dropped again to 45 for men and 40 for women.