Cuba and the United States reached an agreement Friday under which Havana pledged to stop its citizens from fleeing the country for Florida aboard makeshift rafts and small boats. In return, Washington promised to accept at least 20,000 new Cuban immigrants each year.
The nearly 30,000 Cuban refugees who have already fled the island, most of whom are housed at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay or camps in Panama, appear to be the big losers under the new agreement.U.S. officials, briefing reporters on the results of the eight days of negotiations, indicated that the Cubans in Guantanamo and Panama would not be permitted to move ahead of applicants now in Cuba.
The U.S. officials said the United States would not accept them while they are in these camps and added that while they could stay there as long as they wish or seek asylum elsewhere, they must return to Cuba and apply for immigrant visas in the normal way if they wish to come to America. Cuba has agreed to receive Cubans now in the so-called safe havens of Guantanamo and Panama.
Reflecting the poor state of relations between Cuba and the United States, the communique announcing the accord was drafted in correct but chilly language. It said the two sides had "mutual interest in normalizing migration procedures and agreed to take measures to ensure that migration between the two countries is safe, legal and orderly."
Hours after it was announced in the United States, there had been no announcement of the agreement by Cuba.
President Fidel Castro of Cuba has insisted that the cause of the sudden surge of boat people to the United States - the largest since 1980 - was the economic boycott of Cuba by the United States, and he wanted the talks in New York to cover the ending of the embargo.
But U.S. officials insisted that the talks be limited to migration matters, and it was uncertain what Castro achieved from Friday's accord.
In Washington, Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff said the crisis was resolved because of "the quick and decisive action" of President Clinton, who made it clear that boat people would not be permitted to land in the United States, but rather would be sent to "safe havens."
On overall Cuban-American relations, Tarnoff insisted that Cuba had to first make a transition to democracy.
"It will not hasten political and economic reform in Cuba for the United States to negotiate the terms and conditions of change in that country with its unelected government over the heads of the Cuban people," he said.
Nevertheless, this was the most significant accord between the two counties since the Carter administration in the 1970s negotiated an anti-hijacking accord and agreed to set up quasi-embassies known as interest sections in Havana and Washington.
In addition to the 20,000 new immigrant visas it has agreed to grant each year, the Clinton administration also expects to issue entry visas for 500 close relatives of Cubans already living in this country.
And as an exceptional one-year measure, the United States will grant entry to all Cubans living in Cuba who are now on the U.S. immigrant visa waiting list.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael M. Skol, who led the U.S. negotiating team, said some 19,000 Cubans were on this list, although he expects only 4,000 to 6,000 of them to seek visas.
In total, Skoll said that between 24,500 and 26,500 Cuban refugees were likely to gain entry to the United States over the coming year. Last year, about 2,700 Cubans qualified as legal immigrants.