No Boat Lift This Time

September 12, 1994

In winning his battle of wills with Fidel Castro, President Clinton has succeeded not only in preventing another 1980-style Mariel Boat Lift but in putting migration from Cuba on a far sounder basis than ever before. He was able to achieve this long-sought foreign policy triumph despite caterwauling from critics on the left and right, some urging him to cave in to Mr. Castro's demands, others gung-ho for an all-out naval blockade.

The Cuban dictator, having cynically encouraged his citizens to flee in flimsy rafts, had to reverse his field after U.S. negotiators made it clear U.S. borders will be protected. Mr. Castro had to promise effective measures to stop the mass exodus, now totaling more than 35,000 refugees. And he got exactly nowhere in demanding an end to the 28-year U.S. economic embargo, the lifting of the new ban on cash remittances to Cuban residents and termination of Radio Marti broadcasts.

If Mr. Castro achieved anything, it was in precipitating a crisis that forced mid-level bilateral talks and the first significant U.S.-Cuban agreement in a decade. But the whole episode unfolded in circumstances that exposed the failure of his revolution.

President Clinton seized the opportunity posed by this crisis to put an end to Cold War policies that granted automatic asylum to any Cuban who was able to flee to U.S. territory. This had become an open invitation for illegal migration of a type denied to any other country. It also gave Mr. Castro, whenever he so chose, a chance to ease pressures on his regime and embarrass the U.S.

Instead, the United States will allow a minimum of 20,000 legal immigrants to come from Cuba each year, provided they apply through the U.S. interest section in Havana. Cuban rafters who defied U.S. warnings and wound up in Guantanamo will have to return to their homeland if they wish to seek entry to the United States. Cuban authorities have promised no retribution against them. In addition, Attorney General Janet Reno will use her "parole" powers to hasten migration procedures, especially for relatives of U.S. residents.

Cubans, as a consequence, will remain in a special category. And there is every reason they should. The prospect of an orderly migration of 20,000 Cubans per year is not a number that will take the pressure off Fidel Castro. He remains in the predicament fate has dealt him. If he wants better relations with the United States and access to the huge market right on his doorstep, he will have to begin giving his people political and economic freedom. Mr. Clinton has not retreated from this stand, nor should he ever.

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