- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

The Bush administration yesterday announced a change in immigration policy toward Cuba designed to punish the current oppressive regime and to encourage Cubans to stay and work for democracy rather than migrate en masse to the United States.

One change will open up more slots for Cubans looking to unite with family members already in the United States, but reduce those given by discretionary lottery. The new policy would also punish those who attempt illegal immigration by establishing a list of Cubans interdicted at sea and making them ineligible for the new benefit.

“We urge the Cuban people to stay on the island, so that they may work for their freedom and a democratic society,” said Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, who said a mass exodus from the island nation could cost lives at sea.

Also under the new policy, the State Department will keep a list of Cubans “in certain positions of authority in the Cuban government or known to have been engaged in persecution of others,” and they will be banned from immigrating to the United States.

That change comes a week after President Bush said his administration would “take note of Cuban leaders who try to obstruct progress toward freedom.”

Cuban leader Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since July 26. Five days later he temporarily handed power to his younger brother, Raul, while he recovers from stomach surgery.

U.S. officials from Mr. Bush on down have said they are in the dark about Mr. Castro’s state of health.

Yesterday, the State Department predicted Cuba’s communist government may renew its efforts to assert control and assure the successful transition from the elder Castro to his brother, but the plan won’t succeed in the end.

“While we might be at a moment of great change, we might also be at a moment of actually the regime hardening as it attempts to assert its control,” Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon Jr. told reporters. “Ultimately, there is no political figure inside of Cuba who matches Fidel Castro.

“When a rotor comes off a helicopter, it crashes. When a supreme leader disappears from an authoritarian regime, the authoritarian regime flounders.”

Under yesterday’s new immigration rules, the total number of annual visas, refugees and parolees under the Special Cuban Migration Program will remain at about 21,600 per year. But 7,500 of the 12,500 lottery slots will be used to reduce the backlog in family-reunification claims.

In addition the Bush administration is seeking to pinch Cuba’s medical system, a source of international prestige for the communist regime. Under new rules, medical personnel assigned by Cuba to study or work in a third country will be allowed to enter the United States instead.

Mr. Castro has sent thousands of doctors to Venezuela, for example, in exchange for Venezuelan oil.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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