WASHINGTON, May 2 -- The Clinton administration, in a reversal of policy, announced Tuesday it will allow most of the 21,000 Cuban refugees now housed at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to enter the United States. The United States will then stop accepting Cuban migrants at the facility and begin returning most newly fleeing Cubans directly to the island nation, Attorney General Janet Reno told reporters at the White House. Under the new policy, which has stirred internal controversy at the State Department, U.S. officials will begin interviewing the more than 21,000 Cuban migrants being held at Guantanamo to see who qualify for the refugee status that would allow them entry into the United States. U.S. officials expected to approve for entry into the United States all but a few hundred of the Cubans, such as those involved in crimes or other violence, who instead would be forcibly returned to Cuban territory. The Cuban refugee holding center at Guantanamo will no longer be used for Cubans, and Cubans picked up by the United States at sea in the future will be returned immediately to Cuba. Pentagon officials expressed relief, saying they have been growing more fearful for the safety of U.S. soldiers assigned to guard the Cubans. They said the decision announced Tuesday will relieve them of the burden of spending $1 million a day on the holding facilities. 'I have expressed a concern for many months now with the problems of trying to maintain more than 20,000 Cuban migrants in Guantanamo, that is true,' Defense Secretary William Perry said prior to the announcement.
In protest of the aspect of the policy that mandates immediate repatriation for migrants, U.S. officials said the State Department's two top diplomats handling day-to-day Cuba policy asked to be reassigned. Dennis Hays, coordinator for Cuba policy, and deputy coordinator Nancy Mason told Secretary of State Warren Christopher they could no longer effectively support the Clinton administration's new approach, the officials said under conditions of anonymity. Mason was already scheduled to assume new duties in Uruguay and Christopher assured Hays he would be reassigned to a similar position, they said. In Havana, Ricardo Alarcon, speaker of the Cuban People's Power Assembly (legislature) and Cuba's lead negotiator called the agreement 'very important and mutually advantageous...to solve the situation of illegal Cuban migrants confined at Guantanamo.' 'Both sides come out winning,' Alarcon told a news conference according to the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina. Alarcon said the agreement meets the interests of Cuba and the United States in normalizing migration matters, and is good for Cuba as it 'implies a recognition of our independence and sovereignty.' The new policy also has the backing of Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who says the measure will ensure his state will never again face uncontrolled waves of immigration from Cuba. Chiles called the policy to admit remaining refugees from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base into the United States 'a difficult but necessary step,' but said it will discourage illegal immigration in the future. The Clinton administration previously reached an agreement with Cuban President Fidel Castro under which any Cubans who want to leave their country for the United States would need to apply for a U.S. visa in Cuba. Reno said the U.S. government is satisfied that Cuba has met its earlier commitment not to punish Cubans who have been forcibly returned home. 'We are satisfied that it has been honored,' Reno said. Clinton's latest reversal in policy toward Cuban refugees comes only nine months after he decided to hold the migrants indefinitely at Guantanamo or to persuade other nations in the region to erect 'safe havens' for them. Numerous U.S. officials said publicly at the time that the migrants at Guantanamo would have no chance of entering the United States. That announcement in August was made at the White House by Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff and Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner. It appeared to violate the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which says that any Cuban in U.S. territory or custody will be immediately paroled into the United states. The Clinton administration argued that the law said only that residency must be made available to Cubans who have lived in the United States for one year. The change in policy last summer came after Castro stopped preventing migrants from leaving the destitute island nation aboard rickety boats bound for U.S. waters. Castro's move was intended to force Washington to legally admit more Cubans, U.S. officials said. In subsequent talks held at the United Nations, Havana and Washington reached an agreement that called for Castro to stop the exodus of rafters and for Clinton to issue more visas for Cubans to enter the United States. Critics contended that Cubans with a legitimate reason to leave Cuba out of fear of political persecution would be the least likely to gain the permission of their own government to obtain a U.S. visa in Cuba. Reno said the agreement Tuesday will not mean any overall increase in the 20,000 Cubans who will be admitted into the United States each year under last year's agreement between Washington and Havana. She said the United States was 'on target' for reaching its commitment to accept 20,000 Cubans per year, having already accepted 7, 000 Cubans so far this year. Of the 21,000 Cuban migrants at Guantanamo, about 5,000 already have been approved for entry into the United States. Reaction to the announcement in parts of Miami's Cuban community was negative. Jose Basulto, chief of Brothers to the Rescue, a network of pilots who search the Florida Straits, called it a betrayal. 'I consider this a disgrace. It's a shameful act. It's a treason to the Cuban people. It's a second Bay of Pigs,' Basulto said. 'Those refugees are owed refuge in the United States by law. Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Fla., slammed the administration for the reversal, arguing it would instigate a new flow of refugees from the island-country to the U.S. 'The administration has given the green light for a new boat lift. Just because many Cubans live in poverty and speak Spanish does not mean they are stupid,' Deutsch said. 'Instead of allowing tens of thousands of refugees into South Florida's already underfunded network of social programs, the administration should start attacking the problem at its root and force Castro to release his dictatorial grip on Cuba,' he said. Gen. John Sheehan, head of U.S. Atlantic Command, said the Pentagon will transfer about 500 Cuban refugees to the United States each week. He said it will take 30 weeks to complete the move. Sheehan applauded the action as 'a welcome relief to the military.' 'I was about ready to release a contract for $100 million to turn the camps into something that was going to be more permanent,' Sheehan said. 'Now that $100 million does not have to be spent.' He added that the money could be funneled into accounts used for military readiness. There are also 470 Haitian refugees still residing in camps in Guantanamo who eventually will be sent back to their homeland, the Pentagon said.