It's no surprise to Kirby Jones that thousands of Cubans are leaving their country in a desperate, eager rush. "I think it has to be put in perspective," he says.
"The Bee Gees, Chiclets, Big Macs -- that's very enticing and seductive," says Jones, who puts American businessmen, politicians and journalists in touch with Fidel Castro's government. "Then, add to that the influx into Cuba of 125,000 visitors from Florida with their tales of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, digital watches and toaster ovens. And I bet along with that do not go stories of gas lines and overdrawn charge accounts."
Kirby Jones is part of an informal group in Washington and elsewhere who, in the late 1970s, helped create a more positive picture of Castro's Cuba in America.
Several senators and representatives took well-publicized trips there. A basketball team from South Dakota played the Cuban Olympic team. The American Government lifted its restrictions on travel there. Groups of businessmen, led by Jones, went to Havana in anticipation of the day when the trade embargo would be revoked and they could do business with the Castro government.
Most visitors came back with a fairly sanguine view of the Castro regime. "Castro does not seem to be a dictator for his own sake," Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) wrote in 1977, "but a convinced revolutionary who is popular among his own people. Though we may wish that he would see the world our way, his own scale of values weighs social and economic equality far more than civil liberties."
The flood of Cubans to America might seem to be the occasion for a revision of this rosy view, but it hasn't been.
Some of those who have traveled to Cuba say they knew Castro's regime was repressive.
Others like Jones, profess to be unruffled. They say the refugees are leaving primarily in response to inflated expectations of economic betterment here, rather than in search of political freedom. That distinction may seem academic, but it is the basis of the American government's refugee policy toward those fleeing dictatorships that are, unlike Cuba, right wing and friendly toward the United States.
Political refugees are allowed in more readily than people coming for economic reasons.
Meanwhile, the two politicians who have been the leaders in promoting a more sanguine view in America of the Castro regime -- McGovern and his former Senate colleague from South Dakota, James Abourezk -- say through spokesmen they have no comment on the refugee situation.
Most of the members of Congress who have been to Cuba say the exodus is consistent with what they saw there. "I don't think the exodus of refugees from Cuba is any big surprise," says Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), who went to Cuba in 1977. "In any totalitarian regime, of any stripe, people will escape if they can."
But among those who don't hold elective office, there emerges the view that thousands of people fleeing Cuba in boats is not particularly an adverse reflection on Castro. In this view, the appeal of America to Cubans, as to most people from Caribbean countries, is monetary.
"It indicates that we live in a richer society," says Philip Brenner, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies who has made five trips to Cuba. f"Whether the refugees want freedom depends on what freedom means. There's very little evidence that they want the freedom to write for The Washington Post. They want the apparent Freedom to choose jobs. Those are the stories they hear about. They don't hear about Alabama blacks who can't get jobs."
Brenner says the refugees have gotten an inaccurate picture of America from their relatives who came here in the 1960s and received extraordinary benefits from the government -- an exercise in "buying people off" as part of a deliberate program to destabilize-Castro's government.
Most people who have been to Cuba stress Castro's decision to allow people who left the country in the 1960s to return to visit their families as a factor in the current wave of migration. The visits created an "invidious comparison" between economically depressed Cuba and prosperous America, says William Leogrand, a assistant professor in the school of government and public administration at American University. "What would happen if we opened our doors to Mexicans?" he says. "Millions would come. Cubans don't like living in a poor country any more than anybody else does."
In addition, says Saul Landau, who has visited Cuba more than 20 times and made five films about the Castro regime, many of those leaving are either "not integrated into the revolutionary process" or criminals. "Most people there don't want to leave. This will be the last batch," he says.
The funny thing about all this impugning of the motives of the refugees fleeing Cuba is that it sounds so much like what the U.S. government says about people fleeing other Caribbean countries, like Haiti, that are dictatorships friendly to us. To Cubans, President Carter says, we will "provide an open heart and open arms." For others, the law says, we'll take them in only if there is "a well-founded fear of prosecution" if they return to the country they fled.
That means that we often send refugees back if we think they were coming here only for reasons of "economic privation" -- and that tranlates, roughly, into Kirby Jones' Bee Gees, Chiclets, and Big Macs.