THE UNITED STATES believes Cuba has started to release prisoners from its jails and suspects that President Fidel Castro is about to send them to join the boat people leaving the island for Florida.
This would immediately escalate the confrontation between Washington and Havana. During the last exodus of Cubans in 1980, Mr Castro created a crisis for the White House by sending criminals, drug addicts and mentally retarded people to the US.
Officials in Washington say they have learned from sources in Havana that the releases from Cuban prisons began last weekend. President Bill Clinton is acutely conscious of the effectiveness of the Cuban tactic of sending killers and thieves along with genuine refugees: in 1980 his own political career was almost ended when 18,000 Cuban boat people, mostly former prisoners, rioted at a US military base, Fort Chafee in Arkansas.
The US Coastguard has not so far reported that newly released criminals are among the 17,000 Cubans picked up from rafts and dinghies in the Straits of Florida over the past month. But the freeing of the prisoners occurred very recently and bad weather has slowed the outflow of people to only 585 on Friday compared to some 3,000 a day earlier in the week.
During the so-called Mariel crisis - named after the Cuban port from which the refugees sailed - 14 years ago President Castro sent 125,000 Cubans to the US. Many were later discovered to be violent criminals, identifiable by their prison tattoos between their thumbs and their forefingers.
Mr Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, was persuaded by President Jimmy Carter to house almost 20,000 at Fort Chaffee, once used to hold German prisoners of war. After serious rioting they smashed down the gates of the base, stoned police and set fire to buildings. Accused of mishandling the incident, Mr Clinton was voted out of office.
President Castro may be signalling that he is prepared to once again make a wholesale clearance of his prisons in order to force the US to have a dialogue about the US embargo as well as immigration. So far Washington has agreed only to resume a series of low-level talks on migration next week, when the current crisis will be discussed. The White House does not want to be seen to be forced to the negotiating table, unable to cope with exodus.
For the moment White House officials say they can deal with the Cubans they pick up. The US base at Guantanamo is being expanded to take 60,000 people and Panama has agreed to allow 10,000 to be settled temporarily at US military facilities. The Clinton administration is also hopeful that continued bad weather - it is the hurricane season in the Caribbean - will ease its problems.
Once the weather improves, however, the boats and rafts will start to leave again, putting President Clinton under growing pressure to start talks with Havana. The political and media criticism of his policies is increasing. A Republican senator, Al Simpson, said yesterday that it was absurd to hold discussions with Communist countries like Vietnam but refuse to talk with 'a country 91 miles from the United States'. And a White House official yesterday admitted that it was surprising to see calls for an end to the embargo from sections of the conservative press.
So far, however, Mr Clinton is paying more heed to the Miami Cubans who want the embargo tightened. It was apparently on their advice that remaining air links to Cuba were cut on Friday and Cubans in the US were banned from sending some dollars 500m ( pounds 333m) a year to their relatives at home.
Report, page 10; Caribbean nightmare, Sunday Review
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