Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is warning that Cuban officials may encourage a new mass migration to the United States in the wake of protests across the country against the communist government, The Miami Herald reports.
Rubio, who is Cuban American and the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee dealing with Latin America, said Monday on Twitter that Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel will likely follow the lead of longtime dictator Fidel Castro and encourage protesters to leave the country, possibly by boat.
"Regime in #Cuba will now threaten that a rafter or Mariel style crisis 'is inevitable' if the US doesn't stop encouraging protests & return to Obama policy We must not cave to blackmail & @potus must warn them that encouraging mass migration will be considered a hostile action," Rubio tweeted.
The last time such anti-government forces became so emboldened was in 1994. Castro at that time told protesters to feel free to leave, and allowed anyone who wanted to set sail to do so.
About 35,000 did so, mostly on makeshift — and unseaworthy — vessels. Many died at sea, while others did reach Florida safely. Most were rescued along the way by U.S. Coast Guard vessels and returned to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
President Bill Clinton and the Cuban government eventually established a "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that allowed Cubans who managed to make it to the United States on dry land to stay, but those intercepted before they arrived were returned to Cuba.
That policy stayed in effect until it was reversed by President Barack Obama on his last day in office.
But the largest incident of Cubans fleeing the country, and the one referred to in Rubio's tweet, was the Mariel boatlift of 1980, in which 125,000 Cubans fled the country after being given permission by Castro.
The incident created a crisis for President Jimmy Carter, especially after Castro began sending prisoners along with legitimate refugees.
Former President Donald Trump issued a statement on Monday saying he stands behind the Cuban people "100% in their fight for freedom," and called on President Joe Biden to do likewise.
Biden said the United States supports the people of Cuba in their call for freedom and relief from the pandemic and economic woes, but the White House stopped short of a shift away from a Trump-era embargo of the island.
Thousands of Cubans joined street protests from Havana to Santiago on Sunday in the biggest anti-government demonstrations in communist Cuba in decades. They chanted "freedom" and called for Diaz-Canel to step down.
Biden referred to the protests as "remarkable" and told reporters at the White House that the Cuban people were "demanding their freedom from an authoritarian regime."
He called on Cuban leaders to allow the protests to proceed without violence.
"The United States stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights, and we call on the government ... to refrain from violence or attempts to silence the voice of the people of Cuba," Biden said.
He declined to answer questions about whether the United States would alter its policy toward Cuba, and White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki gave no indication of an immediate shift.
Biden's administration has been reviewing its approach to Cuba since he took over from Trump, who had closed the door to increased tourism to the Caribbean island nation opened up by Obama.
The protests erupted amid both Cuba's worst economic crisis since the 1990s and a record surge in coronavirus infections. People denounced shortages of basic goods, curbs on civil liberties, and the authorities' handling of the pandemic.
Information from Reuters was used in this report.
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