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White House prays Cuban influx is over

WASHINGTON - In an effort to defuse the crisis over Cuban boat people, the United States is expected to offer to relax its immigration rules and allow more than 20,000 Cubans a year to settle legally in the US, writes Patrick Cockburn.

This is almost ten times the number admitted legally last year. The offer will be made at talks between American and Cuban diplomats in New York tomorrow. The Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, said last week that the exodus of 18,000 people in rickety boats and rafts over the last month was caused by the failure of the US to issue enough visas.

Although the number of rafts intercepted by the US Coast Guard rose again sharply yesterday after a brief lull, there were hopes in Washington that the crisis may be ending. Last week more than 3,000 boat people a day were being rescued and taken to the US base at Guantanamo in Cuba.

'Growing numbers of Cubans understand that they will not come to the United States if they are picked up in the Straits (of Florida),' said the Under-Secretary of State, Peter Tarnoff, the co- ordinator of policy on Cuba. About 225 Cubans at Guantanamo have asked to go home. At the talks in New York the US will ask Havana to stop Cubans leaving illegally. In return the US will allow most of the 19,700 Cubans applying for visas - some have waited as long as ten years - to enter the country this year.

The US is authorised to grant residence visas to 27,486 Cubans a year. However, only 2,700 Cubans were admitted last year. The Clinton administration is now prepared to issue more than 20,000 visas a year. By refusing to admit Cubans who set sail for Florida but at the same time increasing the chance of getting a visa from the US Interest Section in Havana, Washington believes it can deter boat people from leaving.

The administration will face pressure from the Cuban lobby in Miami to admit the 13,000 Cubans at Guantanamo. But it will be difficult to do so without encouraging more boat people. It would also be difficult to admit Cubans without admitting the 14,000 Haitians also at the base.

In Florida - the destination of both Cubans and Haitians - President Bill Clinton's policy of excluding immigrants is popular, except among members of the Cuban and Haitian communities. Governor Lawton Chiles, standing for re-election, most probably against Jeb Bush, son of the former president, is making political mileage out of opposing an influx of Cuban refugees.

Washington is hinting that it will begin a more serious dialogue with Cuba once President Castro has stopped the exodus of refugees. On Sunday the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, said that the US would take 'carefully calibrated' steps towards better relations with Cuba, if it moved towards democracy.

(Photograph omitted)