Cuban father waits in dread for word of son: At Krome, Miami, Rupert Cornwell finds that the boat people are being sacrificed for politics

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UP TO 100 Cuban-Americans jammed outside the gate are screaming at the blank-faced police guards, waving Cuban flags, and chanting 'Libertad'. But not Jose-Antonio Medina - he sits on a low concrete wall, waiting. Not for the revolution in his home country, nor in the expectation that the frenzy around him will produce any quick result. For the past eight hours, he has been waiting for word of his son.

Now in his 50s, Mr Medina made it to America in the legendary Mariel boatlift 14 years ago. But he left eight sons behind.

Now he has been told that one of them, Jorge, left the Havana beaches by raft on Tuesday or Wednesday. But by 4pm on Saturday, despite the clamour of the crowd, officials at the Immigration and Naturalisation Service 'processing centre' have not released any names.

At best, Jorge's will be on it, one of the 336 refugees brought to Krome since President Bill Clinton's announcement the previous day that the automatic right of asylum in the US which Cubans have enjoyed for three decades was ending. If so, his problems are over. The son of a US resident, Jorge would be automatically reunited with his father, instead of being sent straight back to join 15,000 Haitian boat-people already packed into America's fortress foothold on his homeland at Guantanamo bay.

At worst, who knows? 'The crossing can take two or three days or a fortnight, depending on the tide,' Mr Medina explains with a shrug. There are grimmer possibilities. His son's vessel might have been washed back to shore, or lost in the treacherous waters of the Florida Straits - a sacrificed pawn in this latest diplomatic war between Havana and Washington and the requirements of domestic politics.

At the weekend, moving to appease Cuban-Americans appalled by the demotion of their fleeing compatriots to Haitian status, President Clinton stiffened sanctions further. A ban on cash transfers to relatives in the island will deprive the Castro regime of dollars 150m ( pounds 98m) to dollars 200m a year in hard currency. 'Family reunification' visits and charter flights to the island will be curtailed, while propaganda broadcasts in Spanish from Florida are being stepped up. Thus, Washington calculates, will Cuba's isolation and the pressure on Mr Castro be increased.

But even these new measures still fall short of a the total blockade demanded by hard-line emigres. Mr Clinton's chief of staff, Leon Panetta, said yesterday a blockade was an option for the US unless the Castro's government made 'some legitimate movements toward democracy'.

'Clinton, are you playing Castro's game?' asks a placard carried by one of the 50-odd demonstrators now bivouacked at the monument to the Cuban-Americans who lost their lives in the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, on Calle Ocho in the heart of Miami's 'Little Havana'. The figures would suggest in this desperate hour that the old fox in the real Havana is still calling the shots. Despite the new policy, a record 1,100 Cubans were picked up on Saturday alone, bring the August exodus to almost 9,000. From grandmothers to babies, los balseros were leaving on anything that would float.

If these malcontents want to leave, then so much the better, Mr Castro reasons. And if they come in numbers enough to overwhelm US facilities, then that is Mr Clinton's problem. Reports from Havana suggest security police continue to bundle would-be emigrants on to their precarious craft. As Arturo Vieja, a Cuban specialist at Miami's Florida International University and an avowed 'pragmatist' says, 'Every single action the US takes, Castro turns it to his advantage. What he is doing is awful, what Washington is doing is stupid.'

This sweeping reversal of US policy may yet comply with that rule. For 30 years Havana has been blaming Cuba's plight on the US embargo. 'These new measures will only increase the hardship,' Abelardo Moreno, minister at Cuba's UN mission said yesterday. As with Haiti, it is ordinary Cubans who will suffer. An invasion to put Haiti out of its misery this autumn is quite conceivable. Despite much probable huffing and puffing over Cuba at the UN, a military collision with Mr Castro is not.

Thus the Krome solution. This is not what Cubans are used to. The 'processing centre' is really a detention camp - barracks and tents surrounded by barbed wire and a 10-foot fence 25 miles west of central Miami. The warnings by the entrance gate are in Creole. Until Friday this was where they sent Haitians, not Cubans previously sure of a hero's welcome whether they actually made it to terra Americana or were picked up on the high seas.

The diehards with their loudspeakers at the Bay of Pigs monument, or who call into the Spanish- language radio talkshows in Miami are predictably furious: 'If you're going to treat Cubans like Haitians,' they argue, 'then treat Castro like (Haitian dictator Raoul) Cedras.' But most Cuban- Americans have mixed feelings. Their loathing of Mr Castro and all he stands for is visceral. But few want a repeat of Mariel, and another 125,000 refugees swamping facilities and wearing Florida's tolerance to breaking-point. The Miami Herald said Mr Clinton had made the best of a bad job.

His get-tough policy has drawn wide support in a state which has the fourth largest bloc of votes in the electoral college at the 1996 presidential election. An even more obvious beneficiary has been Lawton Chiles, Florida's Governor, who is running for re-election in November. His imposition of a state of emergency last Thursday forced Washington's hand. Their governor, Floridians have been shown, has clout.

And so back to Krome, where the waiting continues. Suddenly there is word that another 29 refugees are about to arrive. Just after 5 pm, the INS bus enters the camp without stopping. For the crowd held back by the police, there is just a tantalising glimpse of heads silhouetted through the iron mesh windows, a few defiant waves. Perhaps one of them is Jorge Medina.

Cuba creaks, page 15