The Miami Herald
Sun, Aug. 22, 2004
Rafters helped open entry door

The 1994 Cuban 'balsero' crisis brought significant shifts in U.S.-Cuba policy, plus a little-noticed infusion of legal migrants.


In the shadow of the best-known and most controversial result of the Cuban balsero crisis in 1994 -- the wet foot/dry foot policy -- more than 230,000 Cubans have legally immigrated to the United States in the past decade.

That quiet inflow of Cubans represents nearly seven times the 35,000 would-be migrants who wound up at the U.S. Navy base in Guantánamo Bay -- another of the searing images from those days when Cubans by the tens of thousands took to inner tubes, homemade rafts and other flimsy vessels in desperate bids to cross the Florida Straits.

To persuade Cuban President Fidel Castro to end his anyone-can-leave policy, the Clinton administration officially promised Havana it would guarantee legal entry for at least 20,000 Cubans each year.


It was something that Castro always wanted, said Michael Kozack, who was the top U.S. negotiator in migration talks with Cuba after the 1980 Mariel boatlift and served as the top U.S. diplomat in Havana from 1996 to 1999.

After Mariel, Kozack said, Cuba demanded that the United States take in 50,000 migrants a year -- a figure the Carter administration rejected.

''In '94, when they unloaded on us again, one of the first responses of the United States was to give them what they wanted,'' Kozack said. ``In order for them to shut down the uncontrolled migration, we decided to give them . . . the 20,000 as a minimum rather than a maximum.''

''One of the interesting things I find about Cuba is that it's probably the only country in the world that tries to export its people,'' Kozack added during an interview in Washington, where he now serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

On the island, the balsero exodus created a frenzy.

Neighbors pooled money and supplies to build the flimsy watercraft. Families huddled to determine who should go first. And tears flowed across Cuba's shorelines as loved ones waved goodbye, not knowing whether they would make it to the other side.

The U.S.-Cuba migration accords, signed in 1994 and 1995, immediately served to halt the illegal departures from Cuba and eventually allowed most of the 35,000 balseros who were detained in Guantánamo, after being intercepted at sea, to reach the United States.

And over the next 10 years, more than 230,000 Cubans received U.S. visas and arrived at U.S. airports with far less notice than their 1994 balsero or Guantánamo compatriots or the 3,000 who now reach U.S. shores illegally in an average year.

The policy of returning most Cuban would-be migrants caught at sea and allowing those who make it to U.S. shores to stay -- the wet foot/dry foot policy -- remains controversial in Miami to this day.

Only a small percentage of Cubans found at sea nowadays qualify for asylum by establishing a well-founded fear of persecution. The vast majority are quickly returned to Cuba by the U.S. Coast Guard.

''About 85, 90, 95 percent of those interviewed say they are coming to the United States because they want a job,'' said Kevin Whitaker, the State Department's coordinator of Cuban affairs. ``That doesn't meet the credible-fear-ofpersecution standard.''


And the 1994 policy of temporarily detaining Cuban balseros in Guantánamo had its problems.

Miami's Guarioné Díaz, president of the Cuban American National Council, a social service group, was tapped to serve as a liaison between the Cubans held in Guantánamo and the U.S. government.

In his first visit there, Díaz said, he saw hundreds of Cubans pressed against the wire that ringed the refugee camps, shouting ``Where is my child? When are we leaving? Help us!''

''It was really a very, very sad scene,'' said Díaz, who fled Cuba two years after Castro rose to power in 1959. ``I didn't know the details of what was happening in Washington and wasn't privy to the politics. My duty was to help the refugees. I was consumed by that.

''After being at the base after a few days, I knew there was no way the refugees were going to be there a long time,'' he said. ``The living conditions were such that it was impossible to keep them there for very long.''

The Cuban camps in Guantánamo were emptied within a year, with Washington using the 20,000 visas-a-year promised to Havana to allow them into the United States.

But in order to fulfill the quota in subsequent years, the U.S. held three lotteries for Cubans seeking to leave. About 189,000 Cubans registered for the first lottery in 1994. Another 433,000 signed up in 1996, and 541,000 registered in 1998.

''More than a quarter of a million Cubans have come to the United States,'' Whitaker said. ''That is a sizable percentage of the population'' of about 11 million.

''The positive way to view this argument is that we are providing an outlet for any Cuban who desires to leave,'' he said. ``We have a moral obligation . . . to take in people who are being persecuted in their own country.''