Florida declares emergency as Cubans flood in

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The Independent Online
WITH Cuban refugees arriving on its shores in ever greater numbers, Florida yesterday declared a state of emergency and appealed to Washington for help in handling the greatest migration sanctioned by Fidel Castro since 1980.

Speaking at Key West, the southern extremity of Florida only 90 miles from Havana, and where many of the Cubans are arriving by boat, dinghy and raft, Governor Lawton Chiles said he would call out the state's National Guard if neccessary to process the immigrants. Some 547 arrived on Wednesday alone, the biggest one-day inflow this year. He demanded an increase in US Coast Guard patrols of the Florida Straits, and federal money to help house and feed the newcomers.

'Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, are lined up waiting to leave,' Mr Chiles said. 'There is no effort by Castro to stop them - indeed it looks like every effort is being made to encourage them.'

Senior officials were meeting at the White House yesterday to consider Mr Chiles' demand. But there was no immediate sign of additional emergency measures. The crisis was 'manageable,' an Administration spokesman said, adding that it was not yet clear whether the surge in migration was anything other than temporary.

But State Department officials believe President Castro has deliberately changed policy since rioting in Havana a fortnight ago which triggered the latest flood of emigrants. While larger vessels are still prevented from leaving, the officials believe - and eyewitnesses in Cuba confirm - that police and border guards are not stopping smaller craft.

The exodus is now the largest since the boatlift from Mariel 14 years ago, when 125,000 Cubans made it to the US in five months. Unlike then, Cuban-Americans are not sending out boats from Florida to to rescue their compatriots. Even so, 7,000 Cubans have already left their country this year, double the total for all 1993. This month's figure alone is around 2,000.

In Washington, Rafael Dausa, political director of the Cuban interest section, which functions as an unofficial embassy, insisted Havana had not changed its policy on emigration. But he warned Cuba would cease trying to block refugees if the US did not act to stop them. This action, said Mr Dausa, should include an end to the US economic embargo of Cuba, something the Clinton Administration says it has no intention of doing.