Cuba's refugees

October 05, 1994|By Myriam Marquez

TWELVE-year-old Oscarito is one of about 5,000 children who ended up at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay during the August exodus of Cubans on rafts seeking freedom. Thirty thousand Cubans now are at Guantanamo, living in tents on part of the very island they intended to flee.

Oscarito and his father, Oscar Govantes, no longer live at the base, though. They arrived in Miami last Wednesday after the child became temporarily paralyzed and was sent to Washington for treatment.

The boy can walk again, and, for humanitarian reasons, the U.S. government has allowed Oscarito and his father to live with relatives in Miami. Oscar Govantes is elated. He told reporters, "It was impossible to live at Guantanamo; It's inhumane."

Mr. Govantes was referring to the intense summer heat at the camps, where fans are a luxury, and the rationing of water that has been made necessary with the influx of so many people.

Of course, the Cuban people have lived with food rationing since Fidel Castro has been in power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's wrecked economy has caused rationing of even more food, of electricity, soap, shoes and water, too.

No question that U.S. immigration policy toward the Cuban rafters has hardened with this latest agreement in which the Clinton administration barred the Guantanamo refugees from being considered for political asylum, unless they return to communist Cuba first.

It's a policy that for many Cuban-Americans seems inhumane. Even the Haitians, who were mistreated for years under U.S. immigration policy, were granted case-by-case hearings to determine whether they really were facing political persecution in their country.

Cuban-Americans who clamor for the Guantanamo refugees to be sent to the states are letting their hearts rule when their common sense should. From a political standpoint, freedom will never be gained for Cuba if the populace of that island can just up and leave whenever Castro's henchmen decide it's time to release the human pressure valve.

What's needed is a vision that goes beyond the immediate. There's a grand opportunity in this refugee crisis for both the reconciliation of a nation divided and the buildup of an economic and democratic force for Cuba's future.

It's an opportunity that Cuban-Americans should embrace, by pushing the Clinton administration to open up Guantanamo to them.

Let all the Cuban-American engineers, architects, developers, teachers, doctors, nurses, business people, bankers and, yes, even journalists who want go to Guantanamo do so. Let them teach the refugees, many of whom have professional and mechanical skills, about free-market systems and their democratic institutions.

Have the Cuban-American communities in the United States raise money to buy the construction materials, the water systems and air-conditioners needed to build what could become a sort of shining city on a hill. It ought not be difficult for Cuban-Americans -- a predominantly Republican, "pull yourselves up by the bootstraps" group of voters -- to take on that Reaganesque challenge.

Indeed, it would send a clear signal to Cubans on the island that their fears of exiles wanting to take over stem from Castro's propaganda. It would send an important signal, too, to all of the Latin American apologists for Castro who, after years of ignoring Cuba's horrid human-rights record, now, finally, have begun to prod Fidel to open the system to political parties, free speech and market-led strategies.

Myriam Marquez is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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