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Rules Are Different Here

Stowaways ran in pursuit of their destiny

December 4, 1985

This fall, an Australian media tycoon named Rupert Murdoch was granted U.S. citizenship just so he could purchase seven television stations.

Last week, five Haitian stowaways seeking work in America arrived on a freighter in Fort Lauderdale. They weren't offered citizenship. They weren't even allowed off the boat.

In a scene straight from Victor Hugo, the men were left to swelter for days in an airless hellhole aboard the freighter Alco Trader.

The Bahamas, where they came from, didn't want them; neither did the United States. As both countries quarreled, the ship sloshed back and forth across the Gulf Stream, the stowaways its wretched prisoners.

This sad scene may be repeated in coming months as the Bahamas conducts a coldhearted purge of as many as 40,000 Haitians, many of whom have lived and worked in the islands for years.

For these Haitians, Florida is the next logical destiny, but there will be no parades for them here, either.

If the Alco Trader stowaways had been Cubans, Nicaraguans or Russians, you would have seen mobs of angry pickets and demonstrators. Congressmen would have lunged for the telephone, and the refugees would have been whisked to civilized quarters.

And if the stowaways seeking asylum had been Czechoslovakian tennis stars, you would have seen the red carpet rolling out; accommodations in the Hilton, not a hot box.

But Haitians have scant political clout and, so, are of scant use to those in high office. "They were treated like animals," says Father Tom Wenski of the Haitian Catholic Center. "What are they trying to come here for? For life. For a better life."

This country cannot absorb all the hemisphere's poor, but we also can't afford an immigration policy that is a contradictory mess. We speak in one voice to the rich and white, like Murdoch, and in another voice to the poor and black or brown. Meanwhile Congress remains unable to pass a cogent, equitable and humane law.

Haitians are shunned, yet millions of illegal Mexicans get work because Big Agriculture depends on them. Cubans are admitted as political refugees, while Haitians are rejected as "economic refugees"; in truth, there's little difference.

Haiti's stark poverty results partly from its despotic politics, a fact conveniently overlooked in Washington. President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier is a friend and anti-Communist, and we do not upset our anti-Communist friends with talk of human rights.

But the plight of many Haitians is as pitiable as anything in Castro's Cuba; the poverty is more killing, and political persecution not only real but sometimes violent. This summer three Catholic priests were expelled from Haiti for speaking out against the Duvalier regime. A week ago three student protesters were shot to death by Haitian troops in the town of Gonaives.

If this is not repression, I'd love for someone at the State Department to tell me what is.

We Americans have a strange way of deciding who deserves to be in this country, and who doesn't. Citizen Murdoch wasn't fleeing political persecution in Australia; he came here to multiply his fortune.

Just like the Haitians in the cargo box.

Last Friday, the hot and hungry stowaways escaped from their stinking cell. It is unclear whether a guard looked the other way, or simply made a mistake, but I'd like to think the deed was the work of a compassionate heart.

Who can blame the men for escaping? I would have done the same; so would you. So would anyone with a shred of dignity.

If tradition holds, the refugees will soon find jobs, homes and sanctuary among 90,000 Haitian countrymen now living in South Florida. Much of the money they earn will be mailed home to poor relatives.

Somehow I feel better about the stowaways on the loose than I do about Rupert Murdoch.

Mass murders haunt Mayan asking refuge

June 27, 1986

Her name is Petrona Mateo Esteban. She is from Guatemala. She came to the United States because something horrible happened to her family in the highland village where she lived.

The United States says Petrona should not stay here, that it's safe for her to go home; there is a new government in Guatemala and things are looking up.

This week Petrona's deportation trial began in U.S. Immigration Court in Miami. It was a most unusual proceeding.

Petrona is a Kanjobal Indian, one of about 800 who have resettled in Indiantown as migrants. She is 26, and partially crippled from a childhood disease. She speaks neither English nor Spanish, only the unique Mayan dialect of her village.

The court interpreter, the only one to understand Kanjobal, had learned a language slightly different from Petrona's. Her story, painful to recall under any circumstances, became excruciating in Judge Neale Foster's court.

She wore a beautiful Mayan dress and sat impassively on the witness stand. Often she spoke in little more than a shy whisper. She tried to tell how they had practically skinned her father alive.

In 1982 Petrona's village, El Mul, was caught in Guatemala's vicious civil war. The guerrillas would raid the rural towns for food and chickens; then the army would sweep in, tracking the insurgents and punishing those thought to have aided them.

Defense attorney Peter Upton: "How do you know there was a war?"

Petrona: "Because the helicopters came by."

Q. "What were the helicopters doing?"

A. "They were dropping bombs and shooting bullets."

Later Upton asked: "Did the soldiers ever kill anyone in your family?"

A. "They came and killed my father … he was taken by them and beaten by them … It was 6 in the morning. We were sleeping at the time. They broke down the door."

Petrona said the army men seized her father and two brothers, Esteban and Alonzo, and dragged them away from the others. Alonzo was only 14. Petrona said the soldiers beat them with rifles and hacked them with machetes. She and her mother ran for their lives.

After the soldiers had gone, Petrona said, she came back and found her home burned to the ground. Her brothers and father lay dead. Her father's features were "destroyed." His hands had been bound behind him; Petrona untied the rope.

In all, 11 men were murdered in El Mul that morning. Petrona said she remembered their names, they were her neighbors: Tomas Augustin, his son Daniel, Miguel Jose, Mateo Martin, Esteban Martin, and so on.

After the massacre Petrona eventually fled to Mexico to pick cotton and coffee. From there she made her way to America.

She does not fully understand the politics of her country, but what she knows is this: Men with guns came from the hills and invaded her village. They stole her family's food. Other men in uniforms arrived and stole more. They also slaughtered her father.

As you might imagine, Petrona does not wish to go home.

Kathy Hersh of the American Friends Service Committee says of the Mayans: "They were really caught in the crossnre.They are apolitical.The government doesn't know what to do with them."

Six months ago Guatemala elected its first civilian government since 1966.The United States says this is a new leaf, that the military is enlisting "civil patrols" to improve its image and help battle insurgents. Unfortunately, more than 700 men and women have been murdered in political violence since the new regime came to power.

Petrona seeks asylum here. Her case, and those of other Mayans, probably won't be settled until early next year. The immigration court must decide if the Kanjobales would be singled out for violence if they returned home, if they have a well-founded fear of persecution.

What Petrona Mateo Esteban has is simply a well-founded fear of death.

You've got to have a racket to get asylum

January 8, 1988

Maybe the answer is tennis rackets.

I was wondering what it takes to convince U.S. immigration authorities that Haitians seeking political asylum in this country now have a legitimate claim.

Massacres of voters in the streets apparently are not sufficient evidence of persecution, nor is the assassination of a presidential candidate and attacks on his supporters.

After all the bloodshed and terror, Haitians fleeing to the United States are still being turned back, and many of those here still face deportation.

So I was wondering what it takes to be considered a political refugee, when along comes the case of Madalina Liliana Voinea. She is a ^-year-old tennis player from the Communist-bloc country of Romania.

You'll remember that, shortly before Christmas, Madalina came to Miami Beach to play in the Rolex International Tennis Championships at Flamingo Park. After a scheduling mix-up, she got in a cab, went to the Miami airport and asked for asylum.

You've never seen our government work so fast.

After a two-hour interview, INS district director Perry Rivkind decided that Madalina would face persecution if she went back to her homeland. Said Rivkind: "If she returned, she would be restricted from playing tennis, from going to college, and maybe she would be jailed."

Asylum was promptly granted, a press conference was called and a new media sweetheart was born. Madalina immediately got on a plane to New York, where, according to United Press International, she "spent the day shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue and strolling down Fifth Avenue admiring the window displays."

Personally, I wouldn't want to go back to Romania either, but the haste and fanfare with which the INS welcomed Madalina to America is puzzling to other applicants.

The usual criterion for granting political asylum is a "well-founded fear" of persecution. As human rights violations go, it's hard to compare a machete murder with somebody nixing a six-figure endorsement deal for Puma tennis sneakers.

Madalina came here courtesy of the Romanian government, which regards its promising young athletes as national assets, and treats them accordingly. Compared to most of her countrymen, she led the charmed life. Compared to Haitians, she lived in a paradise.

Based on the examples of Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova, it certainly will be easier for Madalina to become a millionaire as an American. This is true for athletes from practically any other country, Communist or not. Everyone wants to play in the United States because there's more money here.

Haiti doesn't produce many international tennis stars, as most people are too busy trying to find food and avoid getting shot by government-backed goons.

Given Madalina's case, if I were scheming to escape Haiti—and who wouldn't be, with the rigged election coming up?—the first thing I'd do is get myself an inexpensive tennis racket.

As soon as I got stopped by the Coast Guard or Border Patrol, I'd tell them that I was a budding tennis star, trying to make it to Wimbledon. I'd say that I could never go back to Haiti—not because of the gross political atrocities, but because they don't have any good grass courts.

What would the INS say to this? Imagine the scene if the next rickety boat to hit our beach delivered 200 people carrying Wilson tennis rackets and asking where's the next tournament.

Something tells me there would be no big press conferences, no happy feature stories, no trip to New York for a stroll down Fifth Avenue.

Somebody in Washington would come up with a new excuse as to why young Madalina Voinea is welcome, and the Haitians are not.

Maybe it would be the tennis rackets themselves. Maybe only refugees playing with graphite get asylum.

Immigration's double standard is an outrage

July 15, 1991

Sen. Connie Mack has arrived at the startling conclusion that U.S. immigration policy appears unfair in its disparate treatment of Haitian and Cuban refugees.

There's a real shocker. The Haitians have been getting shafted for only about a dozen years now. It's nice that somebody in Washington finally noticed.

Mack's moment of revelation came after two outrageous incidents made the double standard impossible to ignore.

On July 7, a Coast Guard cutter intercepted a wooden sailboat packed with 161 Haitian refugees and two Cuban rafters, whom the Haitians had rescued at sea. The Cubans were brought to Miami, while most of the Haitians were returned to Port-au-Prince.

Even the most cold-hearted bureaucrat could grasp the awful irony. To the Haitians on that creaky sailboat, the Cuban rafters must've seemed like kindred travelers—poor, like themselves, but brave enough to risk an ocean crossing in pursuit of a new life. Of course the Haitians would reach out and help; they shared the same dream.

Then with the interdiction came the bad news, and excuses: The Cubans get to stay because Cuba won't take them back. The Haitians have to go because Haiti will. So much for being good Samaritans. News of the refugees' plight sent a crackle of anger through Miami's Haitian community. This time the discrimination was so flagrant—and the juxtaposition so sad—that politicians had no place to hide. How could one seriously defend a policy that welcomed Cuban refugees but rejected the Haitians who had saved them?

Last week, a new spark erupted. All it took was one stark, indelible image on television: Haitian stowaways, manacled and caged on the hot deck of a freighter.

It could've been a flashback to the 1500s, when slave ships sailed the tropics. But this was 1991 in Miami, Florida. The United States of America.

Where men whose only crime was to seek a better future were being locked in chains.

The five stowaways were removed from the freighter and brought to the Haitian consulate. Arrangements were made to send them home. When immigration officers arrived to take them to the airport, the Haitians cried and struggled and begged to stay. In the scuffle, one managed to escape.

Most of that, too, was captured on television. It was painful to watch.

But if you stayed tuned a little longer, you saw another kind of immigration story, one with a cheerier angle. A young Cuban baseball player named Rene Arocha had defected to the United States, slipping away from his teammates during a stopover in Miami.

Now Arocha was being hailed as a hero, wined and dined and fitted with a new Italian suit and a silk necktie. No manacles on his wrists, no INS agents at his side. Arocha told reporters that he throws a 92 mph fastball. He said he wants to play in the major leagues. One of his former coaches called him "the Dwight Gooden of Cuba."

Back home, Arocha led a more comfortable and privileged life than many of his countrymen. He was not a political activist, just a ballplayer with a good right arm. He didn't leave Cuba to escape persecution, but to seek fortune. He said lots of other players would love to do the same thing.

And why not? In America, a 92 mph fastball is worth millions of dollars. A Wheaties commercial can't be far behind.

That Arocha will be allowed to stay is a foregone conclusion. INS looks favorably on sports celebrities. It matters little that he isn't a true political refugee; neither was Ivan Lendl or Martina Navratilova.

Destitute Haiti, not having an abundance of tennis courts or baseball diamonds, doesn't produce many tennis pros or big-league pitchers. But it is a place that, like Cuba, produces many brave dreamers.

To favor some over others is more than an injustice. It shames this country, and all of us whose ancestors made the same journey.

Racism adds to the pain of repatriations

February 2, 1992

The cutters are on the way, carrying hundreds of heartbroken souls to a place where mad-dog soldiers go on murder sprees.

Our own government admits as much. The U.S. ambassador to Haiti was briefly recalled in protest of bloody thuggery against a political candidate. Last week, for the first time, diplomats mentioned military intervention as a possible option.

Yet the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, says the Haitians can be "repatriated," a sterile euphemism for what's really happening: They're being returned to the bowels of hell.

Many Floridians, though saddened, also feel a secret sense of relief. It's not because they're coldhearted xenophobes—they're not. They are simply weary and worried.

Miami has absorbed more immigrants, in a shorter time, than any city in recent history. The resources here are stretched dangerously beyond their limits. Schools are jammed. The county hospital is overwhelmed. The jails are overflowing. Decent, affordable housing is a fiction.

From a practical view, it's insane to accept thousands more refugees when we can't care for those who are already here. From a moral view, though, it's hard to defend slamming the door.

U.S. immigration laws are disgracefully riddled with double standards. If everyone were treated the same, we wouldn't have the depressing spectacle now unfolding in the Caribbean.

The Haitians' major disadvantage is being Haitian. If they were Mexicans, we'd invite them to pick lettuce in California. If they were Nicaraguans, we'd let them wait here until we're sure Managua is running a democracy. And if they were Cubans, they'd be welcomed the moment they were plucked from the sea.

For years, the INS defended itself with a standard line: Most Haitians trying to enter the United States were fleeing poverty, not political persecution. This made them deportable.

New events have turned U.S. policy inside out. Today Haiti is wracked by bloody turmoil, and Cuba's economy is rotting. Florida is receiving political refugees from Port-au-Prince and economic refugees from Havana. Language is the main difference between them.

You cannot separate tyranny from the despair it produces, whether the tyrant is named Duvalier or Castro. Like Cubans, Haitians are victims of generations of political oppression. It isn't fair for the law to treat them differently, but it does.

Think of the outcry if the Coast Guard began hauling Cuban rafters back to Havana, or shipped them to a sweltering barbed-wire camp! Every politician in South Florida would scream bloody murder.

Haitian refugees have few such powerful supporters. Sen. Connie Mack has spoken most strongly for their cause—but a sad cause it is, because there's no painless, or shameless, solution.

It would be folly to throw open our borders to all who are poor and hungry, or who suffer under a harsh, neglectful regime. We'd be swamped. Given a choice, half the hemisphere would pack up and move to Miami in a heartbeat.

But if we're firm about restricting immigration, then we also must be fair. Racist policies add to the pain of those we shut out, and to the misery of waiting relatives.

Today, U.S. strategy is to gild the double standards and set a stern example that will scare potential refugees. The sight of overcrowded American cutters pulling into Port-au-Prince harbor might deter future voyagers, but not for long. Dreams die hard on the coast of Haiti.

In a dozen tiny inlets, old boats are being patched, sails stitched, provisions hoarded. Men gather with nervous families. A captain arrives, and money changes hands—someone's life savings.Then the journey to Florida begins.

Those who fail the first time will surely try again.

Any sane person would.

Keep goodwill afloat at sea: Sink INS piracy

October 24, 1993

The newest pirate of the high seas doesn't even have a cannon.

It's the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is extracting heavy booty from ships that rescue refugees at sea. Blackbeard himself would be envious.

Last week, crew members aboard the cruise liner Royal Majesty, sailing between Miami arid Cozumel, Mexico, spotted a flare in the night sky. Using searchlights, Capt. Petro Maratos found a raft carrying eight Cuban refugees.

The men had been at sea for five days. Some were dehydrated and hallucinating. The Royal Majesty picked them up and took them to Key West.

For its act of kindness, the cruise ship now faces a $24,000 fine. That's $3,000 per rafter. According to INS policy, anybody who brings undocumented immigrants ashore is subject to monetary penalties.

For the Royal Majesty, it was the third time in two weeks that it had picked up Cuban refugees near the Florida coast. The first groups totaled 11 persons (including a young child), and the passenger liner was rewarded with a fine of $33,000.

The heavy penalties are meant to discourage alien smugglers, not humanitarians. But the practical effect of the INS action against the Royal Majesty is to deter all private American vessels from rushing to the aid of immigrants who face possible death on the water from starvation, sunstroke or drowning.

Whatever one's feelings about this country's screwed-up immigration rules, few would argue that a boat captain should ignore anyone's desperate cry for help, including refugees. Yet that's what is happening. Many rafters have reported that they were spotted—and passed—by several commercial and private vessels before finally being picked up.

It's not surprising, given the harshness of the INS fines. Maybe the cruise companies can afford a few thousand dollars here and there, but many shipowners can't.

Ironically, the oldest of maritime laws require sea captains to assist those in danger or distress. The INS seems to be encouraging just the opposite. It's nuts, like something from a Joseph Heller novel.

The awful consequence is that innocents will probably perish, if they haven't already, because some skippers are afraid to do the right thing. How anyone can turn his back on a child in a drifting raft or a wallowing old sailboat is almost beyond comprehension, but it happens.

The case of the Royal Majesty has its own sour irony. For years the cruise lines have been under fire for surreptitiously dumping garbage in the ocean, but the feds have seldom cracked down with the tough fines provided by law. Now comes a cruise ship captain who nobly attempts to save a few lives—and the government instantly hammers him for $57,000. Some message.

Although INS fines can be appealed, many boat owners don't have the time, patience or money to fight the bureaucracy. It seems a simpler matter—and one of basic human compassion—for the Clinton administration to revise immigration policy to allow rescues at sea, without fear of penalty for the rescuer.

A $3,000-a-head fine is certainly justified for alien smugglers who prey on Cubans, Haitians and other poor immigrants. The trade in human cargo is lucrative and sometimes brutal in Florida waters, and we need strict laws.

But it's indecent to punish honest captains and shipowners for undertaking legitimate rescue missions, often at considerable risk and expense. When a man is sick or parched or delirious from the sun, when he's in a sinking raft surrounded by sharks, there's only one thing to do.

You save him. You don't ask to see a visa.

Alpha 66 threats: New theatrics by inept militants

February 27, 1994

"Those who dare ignore our new appeal will tremble with fear at the violence of our actions."

That ominous little valentine was mailed from Alpha 66, the militant anti-Castro group, to an organization that ships humanitarian supplies to Cuba.

Alpha 66 doesn't want food and medicine sent to the island. The letter was a warning. The FBI says it's investigating.

Nothing will come of it. Nothing ever does. Few, least of all Fidel Castro, "tremble with fear" at the mention of Alpha 66. The group is good at threats, but not so good at actual terrorism.

Sincerity isn't the issue; competence is. Alpha 66 is famous for botching missions. If Barney Fife were a freedom fighter, this is the bunch he would join.

On Feb. 6, several Alpha commandos found themselves adrift in an 18-foot outboard off Miami. The boat carried an impressive cache: shotguns, AK-47s, pistols, a .50-caliber machine gun and 25,000 rounds of ammunition.

Everything one would need for a seagoing assault on Cuba—except a boat mechanic.

In a now-familiar scenario, the disabled vessel was towed to port by bemused Coast Guardsmen, who took away the group's weapons. Alpha 66 later provided the press with differing versions of the "mission," all heroic.

Who knows what they were really doing. The notion of loading an arsenal on a puny 18-footer and heading for Cuba is almost too absurd to be believed. Doing it on a Sunday, when the waters off Key Biscayne are full of innocent boaters, is just plain reckless.

Granted, it's tough to maintain credibility after decades of paramilitary actions that could charitably be described as ineffective. Remember the mock invasion of Elliott Key, when armed Alpha 66-ers wound up captured by park rangers?

Episodes like that don't help the cause. The urge to vindicate one's self with new dramatics must be tempting. Plans abound, but the execution remains flawed.

Thirteen months ago, the Coast Guard grabbed a load of arms, including grenade launchers, from an Alpha 66 boat off Cuba. Last May, Customs agents followed another craft with engine trouble to a marina in the Middle Keys, where they confiscated grenades, pipe bombs and heavy weapons.

Perhaps the group needs to invest less on weaponry, and more on boat maintenance.

Another weak spot is public relations. After the embarrassing bust in May, Alpha leaders declared that the boat had been on a "military mission" against targets in Cuba. That would be a major violation of U.S. law.

So, at trial, the story changed from one of patriotic bravery to one of ignorance. Lawyers for the commandos said their clients had no clue how the guns and explosives got stowed aboard their fishing boat. A Key West jury believed them.

Confusion also occurred last fall, after Alpha 66 warned that it would begin taking violent action against foreign tourists in Cuba.

The U.S. State Department condemned the manifesto and threatened federal prosecution. Alpha leaders asserted that attacks against visitors in Havana would be carried out not by Alpha's Miami wing, but by secret sympathizers on the island. As if that made it all right.

That the FBI tolerates such silliness proves that it doesn't take the group too seriously. But suppose a steering cable breaks on an explosive-laden Alpha 66 vessel, sending it crashing into innocent boaters in Government Cut. Given Alpha's checkered history, the scenario is not so farfetched.

The feds should either prosecute these guys, or buy them brand new Evinrudes.

The other rafters suffer with silence

August 21, 1994

In the torrent of reaction to President Clinton's strict new policy toward Cuban refugees, scarcely a word has been uttered about the Haitians.

The same politicians now bellowing in outrage about the interdiction of Cuban rafters made not a peep of protest when Clinton took the same step to halt the influx of boat people from Haiti.

Today, at the U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, more than 15,000 Haitians are held in miserable detention. It's essentially one of the world's largest prisons.

Except when there's a riot, as there was recently, the Haitian detainees are mostly forgotten by the press and politicians. That's partly because nobody has a good idea what to do with them, or what to do about Haiti.

Just like the Cubans, the Haitians fled an economic nightmare caused by repression, corruption and a harsh U.S. trade embargo.

Like the Cubans, the Haitians were so desperate that they set out for Florida in flimsy, overcrowded crafts. And, like the Cubans, many perished on the journey.

There are differences. The Haitians have no special immigration law giving them status in the United States. Their exile community is smaller, and much weaker in political clout, than that of Cuban Americans.

And finally, of course, Haitians are black. You will never see, in your lifetime, a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans on the floor of Congress demanding automatic asylum for Haitians fleeing the Cedras regime. Never.

Yet most of the same right-wingers who vaguely demand that Clinton take stronger action against Fidel Castro oppose an invasion of Haiti. Why? Because very few votes—or campaign contributions—are to be gained from that position.

Those now blasting the president say he should focus not on the refugees, but on toppling Castro. But they don't say how.

We've already got an embargo—what about a military blockade? Brilliant.

The Haitian blockade has international approval. A blockade of Cuba doesn't, and wouldn't. Not only would it violate the trading rights of neutral nations, it would generate more misplaced sympathy for Fidel.

More importantly, a blockade is an act of war. Not even Bob Dole wants a war with Cuba; too many Americans would die. The truth is that, short of sending troops, only so much can be done to destabilize Castro.

In the meantime, it's insane not to protect our own borders. Stopping refugees at sea is a heartbreaking affair, but the alternative is to throw open the doors to every hungry soul in the Caribbean—not just Cubans and Haitians, but everybody.

Oh, we've got acres of open space … in Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. But Caribbean refugees tend to stay here in South Florida, and we're already jammed to the gills with people.

Another Mariel would be catastrophic. Florida would be swamped, and Castro would get a new lease on life.

Gov. Lawton Chiles was right to demand fast federal action, and Clinton was right to begin intercepting rafters. The word will quickly spread in Cuba, and the number of those taking to the sea will begin to drop.

Among Clinton's most venomous critics is the aptly named Newt Gingrich who, being from Georgia, has no firsthand experience with immigration problems. Newt says the new Cuba policy displays a "mixed morality."

As usual, Newt's confused. Mixed morality is imprisoning one group of economic refugees while welcoming others.

When Rep. Gingrich visits Guantanamo to show support for the Cubans detained there, perhaps he'll find time to chat with some Haitians as well.

They'll be the black ones, Newt. The ones you forgot about.

Protests create anger, gridlock—not friends

May 11, 1995

What a great idea for civil disobedience: Let's block an expressway!

Brilliant. Let's see how many thousands of working people we can tick off on a sweltering afternoon! Won't that help the cause!

The plan is to call attention to the fate of 13 rafters returned to Cuba by the U.S. government. And Monday's mess on State Road 836 did attract all the TV stations, as did Wednesday's multiple street blockades.

What the protesters have failed to anticipate is the fierce backlash. An elementary rule of pro test: You don't win public support by antagonizing the public.

Those stuck in a man-made traffic morass aren't thinking about rafters or the implications of U.S. immigration policy.

They're thinking: Where are the cops? Why aren't these yahoos being hauled away?

They're thinking: I'm late for work. I might lose my job.

I'm late for court. I'm late for a sales meeting. I'm late for a doctor's appointment.

My children are waiting at the day-care center. My mother's waiting at home for her medical prescription.

My baby's in the car and it's 95 degrees out here.

What do these people think they're doing?

All over town, small numbers of Cuban-American protesters are staging "spontaneous" traffic blockages. Everyone else is out of patience. The havoc bred rancor, starting at the 836 tollbooth.

The public relations damage from such a brainless, inconsiderate stunt is incalculable. Those protesting President Clinton's new Cuba policy are a minority who ought to be trying to win converts, not alienate those who might otherwise be sympathetic.

I was a long blessed way from the traffic jams, but I know how drivers felt. What a senseless tragedy if some elderly motorist, trapped between exits, had died from a heart attack or a stroke.

Nothing is gained by disrupting the lives and livelihoods of ordinary folks who had nothing to do with the Cuba deal. It's infinitely more logical to hop a bus to Washington, B.C., and block traffic at the White House. Of course, the police there wouldn't be quite so tolerant.

That's the irony. Outside of Miami, hardly anybody in the country cares much about what's happening in Cuba. Polls show that more Americans are upset about the admission of the Guantanamo refugees than about the new repatriation policy.

In fact, a WPLG-Channel 10 poll reveals similar feelings here in Dade, including a sharp division within the Cuban-American community. The last thing that protesters can afford to do is undermine their support here at home, but that's what they do when they block traffic.

It's reckless, pointless and counterproductive.

Civil demonstrations are a core part of American democracy, and of the Miami exile movement. Marches and rallies take place frequently, and are almost always well-organized and nonviolent.

On Tuesday, a couple of local politicians, to show support for the refugees, got themselves peacefully arrested outside the White House. That's a tradition.

Another is the hunger strike, such as the one taking place outside the Herald. Equally irresistible to TV cameras, these protests make their point—and they make the 6 o'clock news.

Meanwhile, nobody's day gets snarled. Nobody's welfare is endangered. Nobody gets stuck in the hot sun. Nobody's fuming and cursing. Nobody's worried sick about their kids, their jobs or their doctor's appointments.

There are many ways to keep the passion and anger in political demonstrations without provoking scorn and hostility.

All those motorists stranded by protests were plenty angry, but not at Bill Clinton or Fidel Castro.

Flotilla really empty vessel of exile protest

August 31, 1995

On Saturday, another flotilla sets sail for Cuba.

The best thing that could happen is that nothing will happen. The worst thing that could happen is that somebody decides to be a martyr.

Organizer Ramon Saul Sanchez has promised there will no repeat of July's fiasco-at-sea, when flotilla vessels entered Cuba's territorial waters and defied government patrols.

That confrontation ended when a flotilla craft was intentionally side-swiped by Cuban gunboats—an incident that caused an uproar in Dade County and deafening silence in the court of world opinion.

Scarcely a peep of protest against Fidel Castro was heard outside Miami. Many foreign governments plainly felt the Cuban president showed restraint in not blasting the seafaring intruders out of the water.

World leaders who care nothing for Castro's regime will still defend Cuba's sovereign right to protect its own borders. That's why July's flotilla excursion was an international flop.

This time Castro says he won't be so patient with the exiles. Maybe he's bluffing, maybe not.

Last month, flotilla supporters in private planes buzzed downtown Havana in a deliberate breach of Cuban air space. Since then, anti-aircraft batteries have been placed near the harbor.

I don't care how good a pilot you are, a Cessna will only go so fast. Chuck Yeager himself wouldn't fly one over a machine-gun nest. Then again, Yeager never fantasized about martyrdom.

Whether any would-be martyrs join Saturday's flotilla is a big question. But if any protesters seriously think that getting themselves shot will galvanize the global community against Castro, they're foolishly mistaken.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, who once favored paramilitary action against Havana, now advocates nonviolent strategies in pushing for a democratic Cuba.

Yet his July flotilla, billed as a solemn and peaceable ceremony, disintegrated into a taunt. Its reckless cat-and-mouse tactics nearly provoked Castro's patrol commanders into unsheathing their heavy guns.

This time, Sanchez says, his boats won't cross Cuba's 12-mile territorial limit. But they will be carrying outboard-propelled inflatable rafts.

Twinkling with mischief, Sanchez won't divulge the mission of the little rafts. Presumably, protesters intend to dart into Cuban waters and do something—drop leaflets, shoot off flares, moon the gunboats. Who knows what.

The rest of the world will only shake their heads and wonder what's the point. The only one to gain from petty provocation is Fidel himself, who milks these moments for all they're worth.

Here I am, minding my own business, when those darn Miami exiles show up in planes and boats, picking another fight ...

But turn on the radio in Dade County and you'll realize that, after 36 years, the mere act of annoying Castro is considered a great moral victory. It's sad, like a little kid who stands outside the window, making faces until he finally gets your attention.

A genuine heartfelt protest is one thing, invigorating in its dignity. But a prank is just a prank.

Nothing that takes place this weekend off Havana will bring Cuba one bit closer to democracy, or push Castro one day closer to exile, or move the suffering Cuban people one step nearer to freedom.

As thrilling as it might be to provoke Fidel's regime face to face, it accomplishes zero. The flotilla simply becomes a floating pep rally for one faction of the exile community and a dangerous pep rally at that.

In a battle against inflatable rafts, Castro's gunboats won't even need bullets. A knitting needle will do the job.

Immigration priorities are warped

January 8, 1998

Every kid who wants to get out of Cuba should be taking batting practice, because baseball is their best ticket to the United States.

Cuban pitcher Livan Hernandez defected and became a World Series hero. His half-brother Orlando escaped by boat to the Bahamas last week, and was promptly offered a humanitarian visa by U.S. officials. Soon he'll be playing in the majors.

No other country can match our mania for professional sports and the way we idolize athletes. It's an obsession that warps our immigration priorities, among others.

A Cuban jock has a better chance of getting into the United States than a Cuban doctor, engineer or schoolteacher does. That's hard to justify, and one reason for the mixed reaction in South Florida to the special way Orlando Hernandez was treated.

No one disputes that El Duque, as he is known, was persecuted in Cuba—kicked off the national baseball team after Livan's defection. Likewise, no one doubts that Orlando would have faced prison or other retribution from the Castro government had he been sent back.

That's exactly what has happened to others who were not blessed with a 90 mph fastball.

Three years ago, the United States began repatriating Cuban rafters intercepted on their way to Florida, a move designed to deter another chaotic Mariel exodus. The policy shift was necessary and overdue.

For a long time the United States had used a double standard for Caribbean refugees, routinely turning away Haitian boat people while accepting most Cubans without question. Yet the dream they carried on their journeys was the same: to escape economic hardship caused by political repression.

The world is full of people in similar grim predicaments. The United States cannot absorb them all, but it makes room each year for a fixed number from each country.

Exceptions to the rules are commonly made for sports stars. Ballplayers are always welcome. So are tennis prodigies and ice dancers and champion weight lifters.

These aren't political activists; they're jocks looking for a payday. Nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, the same opportunity cannot be promised to everyone who wants to come here. It's just not possible.

Every year, 20,000 U.S. entry visas are offered in Havana, and the demand far outstrips the supply. El Duque turned down his special visa and is instead headed for Costa Rica, a move that allows him to negotiate more fruitfully with American baseball clubs. Soon he'll be rich, and good for him.

But I can't help thinking of a woman I met near Havana a few years ago. She lived in a small apartment with her husband, children and mother. Though she expressed no interest in moving to Miami, the woman had big-league credentials.

She couldn't throw a slider, but she was as valuable as any athlete for whom we've rolled out the red carpet.

This woman was an eye surgeon. She specialized in caring for children and the elderly. For her skill and dedication, she was rewarded by the Cuban government with a salary equivalent to about $£ a month.

In this country the woman would be wealthy, of course. In this country she could afford $£ for a daiquiri.

Still, she didn't speak of leaving Havana; she had her family and patients to think about.

But I'm wondering what would happen if she changed her mind; if she and her relatives ended up stranded on a Bahamian island, like Hernandez and his friends. I wonder whether anyone in Washington would make a fuss, or even notice.

I know visas are scarce, but maybe they'd let her use El Duque's. If not her, then maybe somebody like her. Somebody without a sports agent leading them to freedom.
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