U.S. Switch Has Cuban Exiles Feeling Betrayed `Dramatic Change' in Longtime Immigration Policy Ends Open-Arms Welcome from `Los Americanos'

Article excerpt

WHEN PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON announced Friday that Cuban refugees would no longer be received with open arms by the United States, he broke with a tradition that for 35 years has set the tone for relations between the two countries - and shattered the image of an exile community that believed itself to be special.

"He has pierced the heart of U.S. policy toward Cuba," said Rafael Penalver, a lawyer who is an immigration expert. "This is a radical departure from everything we've been used to."

By policy and by practice, Cubans have always received special treatment from the United States.

Even before Fidel Castro seized control of the government 35 years ago, Cubans gravitated to the United States: In the 1940s and 50s, they went to New York for the music and the opportunities; to Tampa, Fla., for jobs in the tobacco business; to Key West, Fla., for the adventure, the history and the romance.

The proximity of the two countries and the friendly relations they had enjoyed since the beginning of the century made it natural for Cubans to always look to "el norte" as a special place and to "los americanos" as special people. Los americanos, in turn, saw Cuba as an extension of the United States and visited the island frequently for business and pleasure.

After Castro, the flow from Cuba to the States intensified. Almost a million Cubans have immigrated in the past three decades in their quest for freedom.

But even if the reasons and the size of the immigration changed, the United States embraced almost all Cuban refugees who came to its shores for asylum.

In the early 1960s, there was Camarioca, a boatlift out of Matanzas, and Operation Pedro Pan, which brought hundreds of unaccompanied children to the United States.

By 1966, so many Cubans had settled in the United States that Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, allowing Cubans to apply for residency a year and a day after they entered this country legally.

In the late 1960s, the so-called Freedom Flights from Cuba to Miami helped reunite families separated during the Pedro Pan years. …