WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration announced yesterday that it would allow about 15,000 Cuban refugees now at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, to enter the United States, a move that officials insisted last year would never happen.
The reversal stemmed from the mounting costs of detaining the Cubans, the prospect that increasing numbers of Cubans would flee their homeland accompanied by small children, and fears of violence among the mostly young men who faced a bleak future at the camp, officials said.
In a second policy shift, the administration said that Cuban migrants picked up at sea from now on would be taken back to Cuba immediately. This strips Cubans of the special refugee status they have long enjoyed.
The new policies were worked out in secret negotiations in New York and Toronto led by Peter Tarnoff, the State Department's No. 3 official, and Ricardo Alarcon, a former Cuban foreign minister.
Two State Department officials with responsibility for Cuban affairs were cut out of the talks and are seeking new assignments.
Dennis Hays, director of the office of Cuban affairs, and Nancy Mason, his deputy, requested reassignment "obviously because they have differences" with President Clinton's change of policy, said a spokesman, Nicholas Burns. The United States started sending refugees to the naval base in Cuba in August, after President Fidel Castro set in motion a flood of raft-borne refugees by announcing that he would no longer block their departure.
The pressure to leave Cuba has been intensified by the island nation's miserably weak economy.
Seeking to halt the flow, U.S. officials said then that refugees picked up at sea no longer would be admitted into the United States, but would be detained indefinitely elsewhere.
The United States and Cuba agreed in September to cooperate in seeking to prevent Cubans from trying to leave, with Washington pledging to accept at least 20,000 legal Cuban migrants a year. The United States, however, insisted that the Cubans detained at Guantanamo would not be allowed into the country unless they first returned to Cuba and applied for asylum from there.
The Clinton administration later allowed elderly people at the base to enter the United States, as well as children and their parents.
But this easing of the policy created additional problems:
* It encouraged Cubans to believe that if they were accompanied by children, they eventually would be allowed into the United States. Officials feared a new exodus of boats containing children as a result.
* It left behind a population at Guantanamo mostly of restless, single young men living a marginal existence and having few prospects.
"There is always a threat of violence in that type of situation," said Marine Gen. John Sheehan, commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command, whose responsibilities include Guantanamo.
In addition, the detention already has cost more than $400 million to house the refugees both at Guantanamo and, for a six-month period, in Panama, and the Pentagon was planning to spend $100 million more to make the camps permanent.
Under the new policy, the administration plans to allow all the refugees into the country except those with criminal records, those who have committed violent acts at Guantanamo or those who are deemed ineligible because of mental or physical illness.
U.S. officials expect the policy to allow 15,000 Cubans to enter the country, in addition to those already being permitted at a rate of about 500 a month. The process will be gradual and will be coordinated with resettlement efforts in Florida and elsewhere, officials said.
A key to controlling the flow is interdiction by the U.S. Coast Guard. Cubans who successfully make the 90-mile voyage to U.S. shores are allowed to stay. Attorney General Janet Reno said that the new agreement would not result in a net increase of Cuban arrivals, because they will be included under the 20,000-a-year figure set in the September agreement.
The new policy drew support from Florida's Democratic governor, Lawton M. Chiles Jr., who was consulted during the negotiations, and from Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat.
But others criticized plans to deny a haven for future "boat people."
"Today's announcement . . . is seen as a sign that the United States now will work in partnership with Castro's brutal security apparatusby intercepting and capturing escaping Cuban refugees, and turning them over directly to Castro's thugs," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican.
"It's a very lamentable decision," said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a native Cuban who represents the Miami area.
Administration officials said that they had won a pledge from Cuba not to take reprisals against refugees who are returned or against Cubansapplying for immigration through regular channels. They also said the Cuban government, in the latest agreement, reaffirmed a pledge to use mostly "persuasive means" to prevent Cubans from attempting to defect to the United States.
The agreement does not change the rigid U.S. stand toward the Castro regime, which remains the target of a U.S. economic embargo. Some analysts faulted the administration for not using the opportunity of negotiations to broaden the dialogue.
"The administration can either seek a larger political understanding, or it can deal with the migration issue," said Bernard Aronson, an assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs in the Bush administration.
Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said the United States ought to be doing "a lot more" to reduce the prospect of violence inside Cuba after President Castro leaves the scene.