Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Shifts Policy, Lets Cubans In

WASHINGTON -- Months after vowing never to reward Cubans who try to sail to the United States, the U.S. government has reversed course and opened U.S. borders to about 15,000 "boat people" held in the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba.

Announcing the policy shift, Attorney General Janet Reno also disclosed that from now on any Cubans picked up at sea would be taken back to Cuba -- a move the United States has avoided for nearly 30 years of contentious dealings with the communist island-nation led by President Fidel Castro.

The shift on repatriating Cubans prompted two career State Department diplomats to ask to be reassigned. Dennis Hays, director of the office of Cuban affairs and his deputy, Nancy Mason, asked for new jobs "obviously because they have differences" with the change, said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina and an outspoken anti-communist, blasted the policy shift as a sign that the United States "now will work in partnership with Castro's brutal security apparatus."

And Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Republican presidential candidate, called for congressional hearings following the decision.

But Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, welcomed the move, saying it would ensure his state would "never again confront a massive wave of uncontrolled immigration from Cuba." He called the entry of the Guantanamo group "difficult but necessary."

Reno's announcement meant that nearly all of the 21,000 Cubans now living under dire conditions in camps at Guantanamo Bay will migrate to the United States. About 6,000 women, children and elderly were already being prepared for transfer.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry predicted it would take until September 1996 to finish the shift and said most people would be absorbed into Florida's Cuban-American community.

U.S. officials said they wanted to cut the cost of the camps, about $1 million a day, and reduce chances of rioting in order to protect the 6,000 military camp guards.

Cuba welcomed the move, announced jointly in Washington and Havana. "I think that it is a fair accord ... in the interests of both the United States and Cuba," said Ricardo Alarcon, its chief negotiator on the issue. "Both sides are winners."

A mass Cuban boat exodus last summer had forced the United States to end a 28-year policy of automatic asylum for any Cuban who made it to U.S. shores. The new boat people were taken to camps at Guantanamo or elsewhere in the hemisphere.