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Cubans Support Sea Accord For Safety, Improved US Ties

MIGUEL ZEQUEIRA GONZLEZ, an electrician from Guanabacoa, Cuba, pulls a bracelet from his pocket and holds it aloft.

''This bracelet, No. 000863000, proves I was in the Guantanamo refugee camp but left of my own accord when the American government swore to us that no one in the camp would ever go to the US,'' he said, standing among would-be immigrants outside the US office here.

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''Now those who stayed ... will be going, but because I took their word, I'm left out,'' he laments.

Despite such complaints, Mr. Zequeira, like many Cubans, supports this month's US-Cuban migration accord designed to end the sea as a legal route to the US. Cubans picked up on the Straits of Florida now will be returned to Cuba and no longer automatically granted refugee status. In addition, as Zequeira knows, most of the 21,000 Cubans detained at the United States military base in Guantanamo since last August's massive flight will be admitted to the US, something both governments long sought to avoid.

''The change is positive, because Cubans will no longer be risking their lives on little rafts in the sea, but can do things legally,'' says a well-dressed man in the crowd waiting for interviews with US officials, who declined to give his name. He has hopes of joining his family in Miami.

Last September, an initial agreement between the two countries guaranteed that 20,000 Cubans can emigrate legally to the US each year.

The safety issue is almost always cited as the first reason Cubans support the accord, since rumors abound here of perhaps hundreds of missing rafters each year. But many Cubans also say the accord is a sign of improved relations with the US.

''It gives me some hope for the better relations we need to improve things for the majority of Cubans who aren't going anywhere,'' says a transportation engineer who asked to remain anonymous.

But, he says, that hope was tinged by a realization that the decision reflected an ''understandable'' self-interest on the part of a US ''a little weary of all these immigrants.

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''It goes in the direction of the will of the American people,'' he adds, revealing a knowledge of recent US immigration politics by citing California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and similar proposals in Florida.

SOME people here who support the accord as a sign of improved relations say the thought of the US and Cuban governments working together gives them the jitters.

''It makes me feel like I live in medieval times with the king and the local lord suddenly working together, but not in the interest of the peons,'' says Maria Isabel lvarez, an unemployed radio reporter.

A less commonly heard reason for supporting the accord is that it may increase pressure on Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz to speed up and broaden timidly undertaken economic reforms.

''While I can understand the emigration, it should have been closed off years ago'' by the US, says Elizardo San Pedro San Martin, a dissident and founder of an illegal opposition political party. ''If it had been, there would now be more pressure on the government to change.''

Mr. San Pedro also supports legislation now being debated in the US Senate, the so-called Helms bill, that seeks to tighten the US economic embargo on Cuba by punishing foreign companies operating here.

But that is a minority view. Most government critics maintain that Washington's hostility actually strengthens Mr. Castro's position.

''I have no doubt that if Castro could sneak into the Senate the day they vote, he would raise his hand with glee,'' says prominent dissident Elizardo Sanchez, general secretary of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. ''It's his greatest propaganda windfall in more than 10 years.''

SOME Western officials agree that Castro may be running some risk in accepting a shutting off of the ''safety valve'' that has permitted hundreds of thousands of unhappy Cubans to leave the country over the last decade.

''This [change] gives some hope to those who believe the future of Cuba should be influenced by all the talented people who have been leaving,'' says Robert Pastor, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Program at the Carter Center in Atlanta.

But others downplay that theory. ''The safety valve is simply institutionalized'' with the accords, says a State Department source, citing the guarantee that 20,000 Cubans will leave for the US each year.

Still, the satisfaction most Cubans express with the accord augers well for the Cuban government, at least in the short term. Some analysts believe the regime, facing worrisome youth unemployment and a hot summer, is now in a better position to avoid a repeat of the street unrest of August 1994. Some Cuban officials at least tacitly recognize this.

''The [emigration] situation, as it was, created an internal turbulence that was not conducive to the reforms the government is seeking to implement,'' says Miguel Alfonso, spokesman for the Cuban Ministry of External Relations. ''We are now in a better position.''

Whether satisfaction over the US accord will continue is important for both Cuba and the US. Without economic relief and signs that relations with the US truly are improving, the Cuban hope could turn to ire. And that could mean new tension for Cuba -- and perhaps a new wave of seafaring immigrants for the US.

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