The dread of refugees.
Finally, Washington is talking to Havana, though President Clinton insists on keeping off the table the very embargo that precipitated the crisis in the first place. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which subsidized the Cuban economy, the U.S. embargo has been strangling life on that island. The markets are empty, gasoline is scarce, hardship is widespread. It is the draconian suffering imposed by the embargo--and not discontent with Cuba's political system--that is sending many Cubans to the life rafts.
The Cuban government is damned if it lets its citizens emigrate, and it's damned if it stops them. For three decades now, U.S. officials have denounced Castro for not allowing Cubans to leave; now that he lets people go, they denounce him again.
The embargo on Cuba always has been hypocritical. The United States does not have an embargo on China, a communist country with a far worse human-rights record than Cuba's. And the United States does not have an embargo on Indonesia, a U.S. ally with a far worse human-rights record than Cuba's.
But the embargo on Cuba was never about upholding values abroad. It was--and is--about winning votes at home. At the outset, U.S. politicians saw the Cuban embargo as a way to prove their own anticommunist credentials. Breast-beating about Castro was a necessary qualifying event in virtually every race for political office. Now the issue of Cuba remains hot mostly in Florida, which has a powerful right-wing Cuban lobby in Miami.
To a disgraceful extent, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been dictated by Jorge Mas Canosa and his Cuban American National Foundation, which favors the most punitive measures against the island's communist regime. Mas Canosa has delusions about heading a new government in Cuba, and his Foundation has contributed money to politicians across the country. Mas Canosa, who had supported Ronald Reagan, raised money for Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential race. And Clinton now bows before him.
The "success" of Washington's Cold War cruelty toward Cuba, however, has collided with another rightwing cause: limiting immigration to the United States. It is this collision that has brought Washington and Cuba to the table.
The dread of refugees is fueling U.S. policy. Were it not for the Cuban-refugee problem, Clinton would not be speaking to Castro. Were it not for the Haitian-refugee problem, Clinton would not be at the brink of war there.
Why are refugees so crucial an issue?
First, refugees from Haiti and Cuba are people of color, and behind the dread of refugees--indeed, behind the anti-immigration movement as a whole--is a huge boulder of racism.
Second, anti-immigration sentiment is a powerful political force, with politicians from California to Washington falling over each other to see who can be better at scapegoating immigrants.
Third, the Government, like the society in general, has not faced squarely the issue of immigration. If we, as a nation, want to stay true to our principles, we should welcome immigrants and find a way to handle those who come here. This would mean sharing the short-term financial and social-service burden that a few states, such as Florida, California, and Texas, face when they take in more immigrants than other states.
Meanwhile, we should see to it that our policies abroad don't drive citizens of other countries to the life rafts.