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New Cuba Refugee Policy Floats Few Boats in Florida

President Clinton's tougher stance angers many Cuban-Americans

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FOR the last 15 years, Jose Basulto has flown over the azure Florida Straits, spotting Cuban refugees fleeing the communist isle in makeshift rafts.

This week, the Clinton administration announced a policy shift that makes Mr. Basulto's ''Brothers to the Rescue'' obsolete.

''Now that the rules of the game have changed, we no longer have any relevance,'' Basulto says angrily. ''We won't be helping the US government help the Cuban government punish the refugees.''

The surprise about-face in the three-decade-old United States Cuban-refugee policy -- a move apparently aimed at portraying Clinton as tough on illegal immigration -- has dramatically split both the Clinton administration and the Cuban-American community in Florida.

Many in South Florida were elated by Attorney General Janet Reno's announcement on Tuesday that the US would allow most of the 20,900 Cuban refugees detained at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to enter the US. Nine months ago, White House spokesman Jeff Eller said those refugees would not be allowed into the US. ''Not now, not ever.''

But the other policy shift stunned many Cuban-Americans here. Cuban refugees picked up at sea by the US Coast Guard will now be forcibly repatriated to Cuba, said Attorney General Reno.

The ''regularization'' of Cuban immigration appears to circumvent the Cuban Adjustment Act, which automatically grants Cubans political asylum once they reach US soil. No other refugees enjoy that privilege. But Wayne Smith, a former head of the US Interests Section in Havana, says, ''The US seems to be saying that the act does not apply because Cubans will not be allowed to reach our shores.''

The policy change enrages many in South Florida.

''It's unconscionable and unprecedented,'' says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida. ''Never before in our history have we entered into an agreement with a communist dictatorship where we systematically return refugees to that communist country.''

The new policy, negotiated in secret talks last month in New York, requires that refugees picked up by the Coast Guard ask for political asylum.

If they do so, they will be met in Havana by US officials and may apply for it through legal channels.

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