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Lawmakers' Warnings Influence Change in Clinton's Cuba Policy

By Ann Devroy and Daniel Williams
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

After Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Rep. Peter Goss, R-Fla., returned from a trip to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, six weeks ago, they warned the Clinton administration of a crisis in the making: Thousands of Cuban refugees detained in Guantanamo were living in a "tinderbox" that could explode into rioting.

Thousands more Cubans could well be planning to take to boats and head to sea this summer as they did a year earlier to escape the Communist-ruled island, they added.

The warnings set off what officials called "serious alarm bells" in the White House, partly because the administration was poised to enter a critical and enormously tricky domestic policy stretch that could well define the 1996 presidential race.

The result was secret talks with Cuba that led to this week's change in Cuban refugee policy. The 21,000 refugees at Guantanamo will be let into the Untied States. Refugees of the future will be sent back to the island.

Therein lies the dramatic change, one that has broad implications for how the administration regards Cuba. For 35 years, fleeing Cubans were greeted as victims of oppression desperately seeking freedom, the way West Germany treated refugees from East Germany. Forcing them back home was unthinkable.

Now, forcing them back is policy. Refugees who set to sea trying to make it to Florida will be intercepted and handed over to Cuban naval or coast guard officials - or a U.S. ship might dock at Havana harbor to unload them. The deal, made with Havana, fulfills a longtime wish of Cuban President Fidel Castro that the United States stop welcoming his people as automatic refugees. The old policy embarrassed his government and, in his view, created periodic unrest as Cubans headed to sea.

Changing the refugee policy throws into question the overall policy of isolating Cuba, especially through the longstanding, strict ban on U.S.-Cuban trade. The isolation strategy has been based on a determination that the Castro regime sought to "export" revolution, slavishly served the Soviet Union and repressed its people. With the Cold War's end, the first two pillars fell away. Denying Cubans automatic political asylum suggests that the repressiveness of the regime is no longer as much of an obstacle as before.

But seeking rapprochement with Castro, as Washington has done with other non-democratic leaders, is an object of conflict within the administration. Doves, led by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff and National Security Council staff member Morton Halperin, regard the embargo as a relic of a bygone era to be discarded.

In reaching the decision to repatriate Cubans, U.S. policymakers weighed the possible political costs of offending Cuban-Americans against several factors: the specific threat of a refugee crisis, pleas from the Pentagon to empty Guantanamo, and the general anti-immigration mood across the country. The route of least resistance was to change refugee policy.

The domestic aspect of administration thinking was reflected in talks with officials from Florida. Goss said he got a call from Halperin soon after his return from Guantanamo.

Goss said he was worried about reports that Cubans were planning to set sail for another exodus. The Cuban government was warning that GOP proposals to tighten the economic embargo would lead to another outflow. The State Department knew of the warning from a report through cables from its representatives in Havana; sensitive to the possibility of an exodus, however, department spokesman Nicholas Burns publicly denied newspaper reports that the Cubans had said any such thing.

Tarnoff and Halperin saw the crisis over refugees as a way to remove an obstacle to changes in Cuba policy, senior officials said. To ease Cuba's concerns, Tarnoff offered to repatriate future refugees. Such a measure would also placate Reno, who wanted to relieve the Immigration and Naturalization Service of having to deal with a recurring problem, a senior official said.