Cuba says the United States promotes the smuggling of illegal immigrants by sea to Florida even as it professes to want to stop the practice. Washington says Havana impedes the legal emigration of Cuban physicians and other medical personnel to the United States in violation of existing agreements.
While the fate of one small Cuban boy found floating off the Florida coast has dominated relations between the two countries in recent weeks, they have a lot more to talk about when they sit down here today for their regularly scheduled, biannual meeting on immigration.
The meetings are held under a 1994 agreement to stem what was then an alarmingly high rate of Cubans leaving the island to cross the Florida Straits in unseaworthy craft. Many of them drowned, just like the mother of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, who died along with nine other people when their small boat capsized last month.
The agreement, and a 1995 addendum, specify that Cubans intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, with a few exceptions, will be returned to Cuba. The United States also pledged to stop admitting "all Cuban migrants who reach U.S. territory in irregular ways." Cuba promised to patrol its shores and waters to discourage departures, and to take no reprisals against those brought back.
To make immigration more orderly, Washington agreed to admit at least 20,000 Cubans a year, many of them chosen by lottery, and Cuba agreed to facilitate their departure.
The agreements are short and fairly simple. But the intrusion of politics, ideology and mutual suspicion has complicated their implementation, with problems arising as the always difficult relations between the two countries reach periodic boiling points.
Many Cubans want to leave; that is indisputable. When the last visa lottery was held in 1998, more than 500,000 of the island's 11 million people applied. Between 1994 and 1998, 110,092 Cubans were admitted to the United States legally under the accords.
It is the ones who continue to leave illegally that Havana wants to discuss in this round of talks. Cuba maintains that the United States entices people to make the perilous voyage by regularly broadcasting descriptions of the island's economic deprivation on U.S. government radio. This is particularly irritating to Havana, which says the U.S. economic embargo is a principal cause of that deprivation. In addition, Cuba says that the new U.S. "wet feet-dry feet" policy of allowing those Cubans who actually touch shore to stay is a specific violation of the agreements.
That policy, said Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban National Assembly and chief Cuban negotiator in the talks, has promoted what both countries agree is a rise in human smuggling.
"The most important issue we have to discuss, in my opinion, is smuggling," Alarcon said. Nowhere in the agreements "has the U.S. or Cuba said that those who arrive there have guaranteed admission. In fact, the only reference is in the opposite direction."
Cuba sees the case of the Gonzalez boy as valuable support for arguments made during talks last spring. "Elian is an example of the extremes to which the situation can go," Alarcon said. "If people weren't encouraged to land, they would not be encouraged to leave like Elian's mother."
According to Dan Geohegan, assistant chief of the Miami region of the U.S. Border Patrol, more than 2,000 Cubans have landed there illegally by boat this year--nearly twice as many as in the four previous years combined. About 1,000 have been interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard and sent home this year.
Geohegan said the increase in illegal arrivals is largely due to the rise in professional smugglers, usually Cuban Americans who he said collect $7,000 to $9,000 from relatives in the United States to pick up passengers with speedboats at clandestine spots along the Cuban coast.
The smugglers, he said, "have the same techniques as the drug smugglers. They have Global Positioning Systems, cellular technology, night-vision goggles and boats that sit low in the water to defeat the radar. They have everything the doper has."
Existing U.S. law appears contradictory on whether illegally arriving Cubans are allowed to stay. Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, all Cubans who reach the United States, by any means, are eligible to be admitted. When questions were raised after the 1994 and 1995 agreements seemed to say something different, administration spokesmen pointed out that the 1966 act gives the attorney general discretionary power over admissions. The accords say only that not "all" will be allowed to stay, but do not say which ones will be.
In April, a "clarification" memo from Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner to INS field offices said that any Cuban national otherwise eligible for admission under the 1966 act would not become ineligible simply by arriving illegally, and would be entitled to all advantages given other Cubans, including work permits and the opportunity to become a permanent resident.
Current U.S. policy, as practiced by federal authorities in southern Florida, is that those with "dry feet"--those who reach U.S. soil--may stay. The policy has occasionally resulted in human tugs of war between federal authorities and Cuban Americans trying to drag ashore people dropped by smugglers near the beach.
Alarcon charged that the United States has done little to apprehend and prosecute alien smugglers, insisting that only one such case has been prosecuted in U.S. courts. He said Cuba has more than 50 Cuban Americans in jail on smuggling charges but the United States has not responded to an offer to turn some of them over for U.S. prosecution.
U.S. officials said that the cases presented by Cuba would not have stood up in American courts. At the same time, in an indication of how far apart the two governments are on the basic facts of the situation, they said 43 smuggling cases were successfully prosecuted in 1998.
While Cuba is determined to press the smuggling and admittance issues at the talks, U.S. negotiators are equally determined to insist that Cuba keep its end of the immigration bargain. U.S. officials who asked not to be named said that Havana has refused to issue exit permits to medical personnel deemed essential on the island, despite the fact that the accords make no provision for such selective prohibitions.
U.S. officials said they also are concerned that reprisals are taken against Cubans brought back by the Coast Guard. Under the agreements, U.S. consular officials here try to visit every repatriated islander within six months to make sure they are not being mistreated. Officials said they were concerned that some of the Cubans were deprived of employment and that others were harassed by local Communist Party organizations.
Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
CAPTION: One Cuban was found dead and seven were taken into custody last Monday after they were allegedly smuggled on this boat to Golden Beach, Fla.
CAPTION: Elian Gonzalez, who was found floating off the Florida coast, rides a Walt Disney World carousel with cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez. The boy's father wants him returned to Cuba.