WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The Coast Guard began ferrying hundreds of Cubans from the Florida Straits to the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba yesterday after President Clinton withdrew a three-decade-old U.S. welcome mat for boat people fleeing the Castro dictatorship.
Mr. Clinton said at a news conference that he would not let Fidel Castro set U.S. immigration policy by trying to "export to the United States the political and economic crisis he has created in Cuba."
He rejected the possibility of a diplomatic overture to Mr. Castro or easing the 30-year-old U.S. economic embargo, which, combined with the cutoff of billions of dollars in subsidies since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is grinding down the Cuban economy.
Moreover, the United States is moving to tighten economic pressure on Cuba by cutting in half the amount of money Cuban-Americans can send to relatives on the island and by limiting gifts to food, medicine and humanitarian items.
The United States is also moving to reduce the number of charter flights to and from Cuba, and increasing anti-Castro broadcasts.
Washington will also act through the United Nations to condemn more strongly human rights abuses by the Castro regime.
Coast Guard vessels picked up 374 Cubans by 5:30 p.m. yesterday and planned to take them all to Guantanamo. The Pentagon announced that two Navy ships would be sent to help, each one capable of carrying 500 refugees.
The administration hopes to place the refugees in havens in other countries after a brief stay in Guantanamo, but the refugees will not be allowed to apply for asylum in the United States.
None of the haven countries were identified yesterday, but the administration said a number have been receptive to U.S. inquiries.
The Pentagon announced that up to 10,000 Cubans could be housed in two tent cities at Guantanamo. They would be kept separate from the 14,700 Haitian refugees who are already there.
U.S. officials said they were uncertain how long the refugees would have to stay at the 45-square-mile base or the haven countries.
One official expressed hope that the refugees would eventually become permanent residents of other countries in the region.
Since the 1960s, Cubans who braved the 90-mile voyage to Florida have been given preferential treatment over immigrants from other countries and have not been turned back.
The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act allows the attorney general to grant Cubans permanent residency after they have been here for a year and have neither criminal records nor certain diseases.
Since that law has been in effect, the government's policy has been to allow Cubans who arrived on U.S. shores to enter and to stay.
But the change in policy on Cubans' entry is likely to mean that few, if any, Cubans will get to take advantage of that law since it does not take effect until a Cuban is granted legal entry into the United States.
Currently, the government is using a Dade County detention center for the 400 who have already been detained.
Attorney General Janet Reno said she did not know how long they would be held there.
Cubans can still enter the United States legally, Ms. Reno said, if they applied for asylum from inside Cuba.
She noted that 3,000 a year are admitted this way, although a U.S.-Cuba agreement allows 20,000 a year.
But she said that for those who take to the seas, "the odds of ending up in Guantanamo are going to be very, very great. The odds of ending up in the United States are going to be very, very small."
But while trying to discourage boat people, Ms. Reno said the administration had no plans to seek changes in the 1966 law.
Cuba in the past used force to bar its citizens from leaving by boat. An exception was the 1980 Mariel boat lift, in which 150,000 Cubans, some of them prisoners from jails or mental patients, boarded boats dispatched from Florida over a period of months.
But since a riot broke out in Havana in early August, Cuban authorities appear to be allowing their citizens to leave in small crafts.
The result has been a recent daily flow of up to 500 Cubans taking to the shark-infested Florida Straits in homemade rafts of inner tubes.
More than 370 Cubans were rescued by the Coast Guard yesterday alone, raising the year's total to 7,865 -- already the highest annual figure since the 1980 Mariel boat lift.
Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, declared an immigration emergency Thursday and appealed for federal help for Florida.
In Washington yesterday, House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich denounced the president's policy shift, saying the administration had lost its "moral compass" by denying Cubans their "unique right" to immigrate to the United States.
Although some Cuban exiles in Florida asserted that Washington had betrayed Cuban aspirations, Mr. Clinton maintained that Cuban-Americans and U.S. citizens generally opposed the idea of another Mariel boat lift.
The ensuing crisis weakened President Jimmy Carter, as well as Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who allowed a number of Cuban refugees to be housed at Fort Chaffee, Ark., where riots broke out.
But Florida's two senators -- Bob Graham, a Democrat, and Connie Mack, a Republican -- said the administration was not facing the main problem -- Mr. Castro.
"The policy seems to be punishing the rafters as opposed to punishing Fidel," Mr. Mack said.
Mr. Clinton was to meet Governor Chiles and a group of Cuban-American leaders last night, a White House spokeswoman said.
Traditionally, the strongest political voices in the Cuban-American community have been rabidly anti-Castro and supportive of an open-arms immigration policy for Cubans fleeing the Communist country.
But the most powerful exile group -- the Cuban American National Foundation -- has so far been silent on the Clinton policy.
Many Cuban-Americans said they felt betrayed.
Miami Republican Lincoln Diaz-Balart, one of three Cuban-Americans in Congress, told Knight-Ridder Newspapers that Mr. Clinton "has been panicked by Castro into violating the laws of the United States."
He said the change violates the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which considerably eased the immigration process for Cubans.
If the refugee flow into the Florida Straits isn't choked off, it seems certain to aggravate problems at Guantanamo, already the scene of disturbances by bored and angry Haitians.
So far, the administration has moved no Haitians to other nations lined up as havens but now might have to do so.
Rep. Robert G. Torricelli suggested that the Guantanamo base could become the site of a government-in-exile, threatening a regime in its final throes.
Mr. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who chairs a House panel on Latin America and is a leading congressional supporter of right-wing Cuban-Americans, said that Cubans brought to the base should be considered "free Cubans on free soil" and be allowed to form a government in exile, if they choose.
"This is not for us as Americans to advocate, or help establish," he added. Legal analysts, however, said that it would be a violation of U.S. law to try to organize a rump Cuban government at the naval base, and that the base commander could bar any such political maneuvering.
A Pentagon official, asked about the threat to the refugee camps in case of a hurricane, said that evacuation bunkers at Guantanamo could hold up to 14,000 people. The rest would have to be evacuated by air and sea. But officials said the base is not in the usual hurricane path.