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Cuba's asylum seekers

What a poignantly eloquent symbol was presented by the thousands of Cubans who crowded into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. Once the Castro regime removed the guard from around it, they poured in, hoping to emigrate, voting with their feet, to use the blunt old phrase. At this writing, there were reportedly 10, 000 of them, more than Peru could suddenly accept alone. If human rights mean anything, other nations ought to rally around and share the influx. And, of course, President Castro ought to follow through on his assurances that those peacefully seeking diplomatic asylum be allowed to leave.

According to one line of reasoning, Castro is playing a game here, trying to teach a kind of lesson to the embassies in Havana. He was provoked when the Peruvians refused to return Cubans who had broken through Cuban security to seek asylum in the embassy last week. He wanted to warn others not to thwart him in the same way. So he showed them what might happen by his opening the floodgates. No doubt other embassies might now think twice before inviting a similar inundation.

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Yet to the world any such local pressure tactics are outweighed by what ought to be for Castro the humblingly ironic image of thousands of his countrymen wanting to export themselves away from the revolution he has for so long sought to export. He has himself indicated the urgency of Cuba's economic and social plight in such ways as his Cabinet shake-up early in the year. Discontent can only have been increased by the recently allowed visits from the United States by Cuban exiles living in freedom and comparative prosperity.

The problem for the thousands who want to leave is that there is no obvious legal resort to international law so long as Castro actually does not deny their human right to leave. As long as they are simply seeking to migrate, they are not refugees under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees definition. There has been some talk of calling on him in the Peruvian Embassy situation, but he has never been asked in the past for his good offices in relation to Cuba.

Another avenue for bringing the matter to the United Nations might be through some amendment to the agenda of the Economic and Social Council, whose spring meeting happens to be beginning today. This session focuses on social issues and human rights, and certainly in a fundamental sense the human rights of Cubans under communism are an issue.

But in the narrow challenge thrown down by the Cubans in the Peruvian Embassy , there appears to be no obligation under international law for the UN to step in. Migration is essentially a bilateral matter -- a country willing to let people go and a country willing to receive them. The United States has regularly demonstrated its willingness to receive those fleeing oppression and hardship. In the present instance, Peru is seeking cooperation from its neighboring countries in Latin America. They have an opportunity to show their humanitarian concern by opening their hearts and borders at a time of great need.


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