If Fidel Opens The Gates, Clinton Could Get Trampled

After six days at sea in early August with 18 other Cubans, Ramon Alexis Suarez is thankful to have made it to the U.S. But the 42-year-old refugee worries about his compatriots still trapped on Fidel Castro's island. "If they can steal a boat," he says, "they will come." That prospect may warm Suarez' heart, but it's giving the Clinton Administration heartburn.

For good reason. Immigration, a hot-button political issue of the '90s, could well determine the outcome of races in voter-rich states such as California, Texas, and Florida. Packed schools, overburdened public services, and long unemployment lines have spurred deep public resentment, new demands to curb benefits for aliens, and calls to yank the welcome mat. The political climate is especially treacherous for President Clinton and Democrats in Florida, where anti-immigrant sentiment has been sparked by an influx of Haitians. Indeed, a desire to stem the flow of refugees is behind talk of a U.S. invasion of Haiti.

TREADING LIGHTLY. Now the situation in the Sunshine State may explode. Castro, desperate to export his problems, is threatening to trigger a mass exodus at a time when even Cuban-Americans have had their fill of refugees. Worse, a new tide of Cubans would underscore the glaring inconsistencies in U.S. immigration policy: Legally obliged to accept all Cuban immigrants, Clinton has been turning away fleeing Haitians, a double standard that could undermine his support among black Americans.

The last thing Clinton and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles need is another flood of Cubans like the 125,000 who came to Florida in the Mariel boat lift in 1980. "That would probably kill Chiles's prospects for reelection," says Miami pollster Robert Joffee. If Democrat Chiles goes, Clinton, who lost Florida in '92, can kiss good-bye his dream of capturing the state's 25 electoral votes, a key part of his reelection strategy.

Already this year, 6,200 Cubans have come to Florida, nearly double the 1993 total. But Clinton knows he must stem the flow carefully. The law allows Cubans who arrive on U.S. shores to stay. Repatriating refugees would inflame the exile community, a GOP stronghold that Clinton has been assiduously wooing. So the Administration is admitting Cubans who make it to the U.S. but is trying to make it harder for them to get here. Coast Guard patrols are seizing boats and detaining people suspected of trying to smuggle in Cubans.

CONTINGENCIES. For now, Cuban-Americans support that policy; they hope that keeping dissidents in Cuba will stir up the political pot and hasten Castro's demise. But sentiment could shift if Castro throws open the gates or if political turmoil erupts. The Coast Guard couldn't stop every boat speeding toward Cuba to pick up relatives. Contingency plans call for dispersing refugees to other states--hardly a popular solution. And there would be no way to stop them from migrating back to Florida to be near their families.

Clinton, whose vacillating foreign policy stewardship already invites unflattering comparisons to Jimmy Carter, could avoid such a dismal scenario by building bridges to Havana. Commercial and political ties would bolster the island's economy, foster reform, and encourage Cubans to stay put. "The cold war is over, and there are lots of countries less democratic than Cuba that we deal with," notes Wayne Smith of the Center for International Policy.

Don't expect better U.S.-Cuban relations soon, though. Any move to ease the embargo on Cuba would enrage Cuban-Americans. As with Haiti, Clinton appears more than willing to trade long-term foreign-policy objectives for short-run political gains.

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