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Florida Sets Out Welcome Mat For Exodus of Cubans on Rafts

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Mr. Companioni says he held no job in Cuba; the authorities suspected him of antigoverment activity and blacklisted him. Economic conditions on the island are so hard that some younger Cubans like him will risk dying at sea to get to the US, he says.

Jesus Iglesia used to work on a sugar cane plantation in Camaguey, but lost his job and couldn't find another. Even when he held a job, he says, government deductions from his paycheck left little to live on.

And because his father had been a political prisoner, Mr. Iglesia says he was not trusted for government jobs. ``There are no rights. You can't speak,'' Iglesia says. ``Every day things are getting worse for Cubans but better for tourists.''

Leonardo Basulto says he wouldn't attempt the journey again, no matter how bad things get in Cuba.

Mr. Basulto and two others stole a rickety government boat, whose engine conked out within six hours. The waves tossed the boat about like a tin can, ruining their food and water the first day. On day five, a Mexican Coast Guard boat rescued them. Later they made their way to Miami.

No one knows how many people may have perished crossing the Florida Straits on rafts. Jose Basulto, president of Brothers to the Rescue, says the number of deaths may equal the number of rescues. The group has often found rafts on the ocean with no one aboard.

Analysts here say that the increasing number of rafters arriving here indicates worsening economic conditions in Cuba.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc that had propped up Cuba's economy, the country is facing serious economic problems not seen before under Castro.

``People fled Cuba when the economy was good. Those people can make a credible case that they fled political repression,'' said Anthony Bryan, a professor of International Relations at the University of Miami. Cubans fleeing now are likely to be fleeing for economic reasons, he said.

Unlike Haitians, who must wait outside the US while applying for political asylum, the US does not ask Cubans if they wanted asylum here because the economy back home is bad.

The special treatment for Cubans dates back to 1966, when the US Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, granting sanctuary in the US for any Cuban who wanted it. The law has no expiration date.

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