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Politics & Government

What The End Of 'Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot' Means For Cubans

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Obama administration has ended the so-called wet foot, dry foot policy which allowed migrants fleeing Cuba without a visa to automatically stay in the United States. The White House said the change was an important step toward continuing to, quote, "normalize" relations with Cuba, a process that began when diplomatic relations were restored in 2014. More than a million Cubans have come to the United States since the Cuban revolution in 1959. Carlos Eire was one of 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba. In 1962, he wrote of course the National Book Award-winning memoir of his boyhood "Waiting For Snow In Havana." He's now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale and joins us from Guilford, Conn. Carlos, thanks so much for being with us.

CARLOS EIRE: Oh, thanks for inviting me to be on your show, Scott. It's always nice to talk to you.

SIMON: How do you feel about the policy change?

EIRE: Well, you know, it's a complicated issue because the wet foot, dry foot policy always had an element of unfairness about it, but it fits in with President Obama's plan for so - normalizing. I'll put quotation marks around normalizing. What he had done previously is basically announced to the world that he didn't care about human rights in Cuba. So now he's made it clear that no Cuban who arrives in the United States can be considered a refugee. That is, somebody who's fleeing an oppressive regime or fears for their life. So it's part and parcel of his policy. And I can kind of see why he waited till the last minute to put this policy into effect because there would have been a lot of pushback from some quarters.

SIMON: Well, let me ask this - should Cubans be afforded a special status that is not given people who flee crime or violence, say from Mexico or El Salvador in the hemisphere, or desperation and tyranny, as in present day Venezuela?

EIRE: Right. Well, this is a - it's - again, it's a very complicated issue because not everyone who flees Cuba is fleeing political repression. There are individuals in Cuba involved in the opposition to the Castro regime, and they are really having a very difficult time right now because repression has increased since normalization. It's gone - it's really spiked and skyrocketed and the number of arrests have just gone through the roof. So there are people who are under duress. They're generally not the ones who flee in rafts and boats. And to further complicate the issue, a lot of the individuals who've been coming for the past 20 years or so, most people don't realize is they have permission to travel back to Cuba. And some of them travel back twice a year, and they go loaded with presents for their families, gifts, things they can't get in Cuba.

So the net result is that for the past few years thousands of these so-called refugees have been traveling back to Cuba. And some of them actually end up - you know, because they have good jobs in the U.S., some of them end up taking their whole family to a beach resort, so they basically go on vacation in Cuba. So that further complicates the whole issue of whether they're political refugees or not. It's been messy for a while, and now it's kind of been cleared up, but it remains to be seen whether the policy can stay in effect under Donald Trump.

SIMON: Well, that would be my - would you want to see it undone by a President Trump?

EIRE: I'm not sure. I've always had mixed feelings about this. And so have most other Cuban refugees who came in the '60s, '70s and '80s when the situation was totally different because wet foot, dry foot has been in effect since the Clinton administration. By that time, things had changed because part of the deal was this going back to Cuba to visit family. Twice a year you can go. And that began to complicate matters. And there's resentment in the Cuban exile community from those who came and really feared for their lives and feared for their welfare under a repressive regime. There's been resentment for these Cubans who go back. And I have a special name for them. I call them YoYos 'cause they keep going back and forth.

SIMON: Well, thank - Carlos Eire, we have to go. Professor of history and religious studies at Yale, thanks so much for being with us.

EIRE: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.