In an effort to halt the flood of Cubans trying to reach the United States, U.S. officials and a Cuban delegation began talks Thursday to discuss the exodus and the possibilities of legal migration.
The talks at the U.S. mission to the United Nations came after more than 19,000 Cubans fled their homeland in the past month. The exodus began when Cuba President Fidel Castro responded to Aug. 5 riots in Havana by suggesting he would no longer stop those trying to leave.Michael Skol, the chief U.S. delegate at the talks, told reporters he expected serious talks on migration.
"We know it is in their interest, as well as in the interest of the United States, to establish a firm system of legal, safe and orderly migration from Cuba, to replace what is happening now, which is dangerous, chaotic and unsafe migration," said Skol, a deputy assistant secretary of state.
On Wednesday, Coast Guard and U.S. Navy ships picked up 2,159 Cubans trying to reach the United States in rickety rowboats, homemade rafts and sailboats. They will be taken to the Navy's base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Cuba's delegate, Ricardo Alarcon, had no comment as he entered the U.S. mission, which is across First Avenue from the U.N. building protected by a police booth and concrete barriers to keep car bombers away.
As he left for the talks, Alarcon told Cuba's state radio Wednesday that the only way to stop the exodus was for the United States to end its 32-year economic embargo against Cuba.
"All they have to do is change that basic issue," said Alarcon, a former foreign minister and one of Castro's most trusted foreign policy advisers.
Washington has long rejected that demand, and U.S. officials said Thursday's talks would be limited to migration questions.
"No other topics will be discussed," said Walter Douglas, a spokesman at the U.S. mission.
Cuba has said the refugees are fleeing for economic and not political reasons, but U.S. officials have blamed Cuba's communist policies for the country's economic hardships.
Alberto Gomes, a spokesman at the Cuban mission, said Cuba would welcome a U.S. proposal to grant 20,000 visas a year to Cubans. Douglas said he had no information on such a proposal, which has been reported in news media.
"If they do so, that is a good idea," Gomes said, "but it must be implemented."
The Clinton administration plans to ask Cuban officials about indications that Cuba has been releasing prisoners to join the boat people, U.S. officials in Washington said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
One official said there were about "100 suspect cases" among the refugees at Guantanamo Bay. However, the official said they appeared to be prisoners who served time for minor offenses, such as trying to flee the island or stealing food.
U.S. officials were outraged 14 years ago when Cuba allowed thousands of prisoners and mental patients to join the Mariel boatlift in which 125,000 Cubans fled to the United States in five months. Many of those prisoners had been convicted of violent crimes.