President Barack Obama released a statement today to announce that he is ending a policy that allowed any Cuban national who could reach American soil can remain and become a legal resident. In his statement, Obama said the so-called "wet foot, dry foot" policy was "designed for a different era" of relations with the island dictatorship. The policy takes effect immediately. Cubans attempting to enter the United States illegally without qualifying beforehand for humanitarian relief bear the risk of deportation. "By taking this step," Obama said, "we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries."
Many in the Cuban-American community had feared that it would be the Trump administration that would put an end to the policy, thus prompting thousands of Cubans to stream into the U.S. through Mexico and across the narrow strait dividing Cuba from the U.S. According to the Miami-based Diario de las Americas newspaper, analyst Nelson Albino said “Obama has dealt a severe blow to the Cuban exile community by eliminating the Cuban Adjustment Act [which put into place a decades-long trade embargo] that permitting legal residence to Cuban immigrants. Cubans will now have to stand in line for visas, as do citizens of other countries.
Political asylum remains an option for Cubans who fear retribution should they be deported back to Cuba. The communist government of Cuba has shown little sign of effective reform since President Obama visited the country last year, heralding a change in bilateral relations. Even the death of long-time dictator Fidel Castro has apparently not moved the Cuban communists to change. An Obama administration official told the Associated Press that Cuba has given no assurances as to how returnees will be treated.
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the move "goes a long way to putting our relationship with Cuba on equal terms with our relationships with other neighbors."
Obama is using an administrative rule change to end the policy that Trump can undo once he is in office next week. Trump has been critical of Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. However, requiring visas for Cubans may be in line with Trump’s stated get-tough policy on immigration. The "wet foot, dry foot" policy was put in place in 1995 by Bill Clinton. Up until then, Cubans recovered at sea were allowed into the country and become legal residents after just a year. Cuba has long complained about the special immigration privileges accorded by the U.S. to Cubans, even though it serves as a release valve for Cubans seeking freedom and who can then serve as sources of financial support for family back home.
According to the Pew polling organization, Cuban-Americans in Florida were 54 percent in favor of Trump, as opposed to 41 percent for Hillary Clinton. The level of support for Republicans in the Cuban-American community for Republicans has declined over the last two decades. Cuban-Americans, especially those who fled Castro's regime, tend to reject Obama's diplomacy towards the Castro regime. Younger Cuban-American voters have proven less likely than their elders to define their politics by U.S.-Cuba relations. Exit polls showed that Obama got roughly a split in the Florida Cuban-American vote in 2012, while in November Trump won the same group by a much narrower margin than many previous Republican nominees.
In 2012, the majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, which had been reliably Republican, voted for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney 49-47 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Yesterday, a group in Cuba that promotes democracy -- the Cuban Democratic Directory -- noted an “increase in the repression of the Castro regime in Cuba.” Speaking for the group, Jose Daniel Ferrer -- who leads the Patriotic Union of Cuba (Unpacu) -- said "Following Fidel’s death, Raul Castro’s regime needs to increase levels of repression in order to maintain power.” He continued, “The increase in repression is due to several causes, including a message that the government wants to send in the last days of the Obama administration, in order to make clear to Trump that they do not care about his change of policy that he has announced towards Cuba.”
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.