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CUBA POLICY RIFE WITH CONTRADICTIONS

Cuba is buzzing these days with talk of economic reform as the nation's National Assembly prepares to choose a new president on Feb. 24.

For the first time in almost 50 years, Fidel Castro's name may not be the one selected.

So it might seem odd that an increasing number of Cubans are trying to leave the island in dangerous smuggling ventures, costing up to $10,000 a person.

Human smuggling from Cuba is up about 20 percent over last year at this time. It is ironic that the smuggling boats leave from Cuba's attractive north coast, one of the country's most prosperous regions thanks to a boom in tourist resorts.

Despite the new jobs in the tourism sector, Cubans still earn state salaries worth $15 to $20 a month. Many Cubans complain that they cannot make ends meet on these salaries. They turn instead to the black market.

This economic quandary - that Cubans' lack of purchasing power pushes them to participate in the illegal economy - is at the heart of a growing internal debate in Cuba.

To be sure, there is nothing new about Cubans coming to Florida. What has changed is the way in which both Cuba and the United States seek to avoid turning it into a crisis. Neither wants a repeat of the immigration crises of 1980 and 1994 when tens of thousands of Cubans poured across the Straits of Florida.

The Bush administration is hoping to dent the smuggling flow by speeding up the visa application process for Cubans seeking to be reunited with relatives in the United States.

The U.S. and Cuban coast guards also collaborate closely on stopping the smugglers.

Cuba does not attempt boarding the usually dangerously overloaded vessels to avoid loss of life. Instead, its coast guard transmits coordinates of the boat, the estimated number of passengers and its direction, to the U.S. Coast Guard station in Miami. Nearly half the boats are intercepted by U.S. Coast Guard ships.

U.S. officials have tried to crack down on the smugglers with fines and stiff jail sentences. But prosecution isn't easy. The details of each voyage are closely guarded secrets. Cubans who enter the country on the speedboats are reluctant to rat on the boat captains.

"We can't say how we did it," said Sixto Sanchez, who arrived on a smuggling boat on Jan. 1. "We can't harm the people who tried to help us."

The Cuban government protests that the main problem lies in a U.S. law that rewards Cubans who are smuggled into the United States. Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans who enter the country illegally enjoy the right to stay.

Cubans in Miami are increasingly ambivalent about the law. Passed at the height of the Cold War, it was originally intended to assist political refugees fleeing communism - not smugglers earning up to $200,000 for each boatload of economic migrants.

In an era of heightened border security, encouraging human smuggling sends the wrong message, critics say.

"It's time the law was repealed," said Silvia Wilhelm, with the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights. "It's become a big business and a very dangerous business." But discussion of the law is almost taboo in Miami. "It's so difficult for someone to take the banner and say we don't want any more Cubans to enter this way," said Wilhelm. "But we should."

David Adams can be reached a dadams@sptimes.com.

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