Captain Courageous

Miami's notoriously dirty, crime-ridden river is flowing a little cleaner these days thanks to Coast Guard Capt. Dave Miller

The traditional blackboard of a shipping agent hangs inside the door. Seven boats are listed, although two of them -- the Merci Jesus and the Pov Yola, both from Haiti -- have been detained by the U.S. Marshals Service for allegedly carrying cocaine. Two Haitian boats -- Sir Muscle and the Sarah -- are being upgraded to meet the new Coast Guard standards.

Eduardo Tamargo, age 51, a heavyset bearded man sits at a desk next to a phone that isn't ringing. Just last year the company provided dock space for dozens of boats. "Now we have three," he complains. "That's what these changes by the Coast Guard have done to us."

Tamargo works for Jose Machado, owner of the company. Machado claims he is a former seaman and was once a member of the anti-Castro underground in Cuba. (On a shelf next to his desk are a photo of former Pres. Ronald Reagan and a small Cuban flag. In a holster under his arm he keeps a 40mm semiautomatic handgun because he fears assassination by Castro agents.) He came to Miami in 1962 and about 1980 started work as a shipping agent, completing paperwork, storing cargo, and providing dock space for foreign boats. Almost from the beginning, he represented Haitians. The boats were mostly wooden-hull coastal traders averaging about 60 feet in length. By the 1970s many were arriving on the Miami River, loading up with cargo, and then making the 700-mile journey back home. They were often brightly painted and bore evocative religious names.

Those names didn't save them from Miller's crackdown. Though his application of the rules has damaged Machado's business, the shipping agent chooses his words carefully when commenting on the retiring officer. "He's not a bad guy," Machado observes. "I know he thinks he's doing right. But he is hurting a lot of people and hurting American commerce, too. He is being much too strict with all this."

As he speaks, a succession of boat owners -- all from Haiti but now living in South Florida -- arrives to speak with Machado. "I don't have anything good to tell them," he says. "The embargo against the Haitian military government from 1991 to 1994 almost put me out of business. But the Coast Guard is much worse. We won't survive this."

Tamargo recently wrote a letter to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, pleading for help, He has not received a reply. "The Coast Guard is discriminating against Haitians," he declares, staring at the sparse list of names on his blackboard and growing incensed. "But you can't reason with the Coast Guard, because they are gods. What the Coast Guard is doing is hurting American commerce. These Haitian boats will go somewhere else. It makes no sense. I believe in being antipollution, but not in being extremist."

Sitting on his bright blue and red boat, the Pov Yola, at the dock just outside Machado's office is Pierre Charles, age 55. The boat is piled high with bicycles and lawn furniture. A wheelchair is wedged in a corner. On one bulkhead is painted a large mermaid with pink scales.

The Haitian captain and the vessel may soon leave the United States, never to return. Charles is waiting for the U.S. Marshals Service to release the Pov Yola. He was not in charge when it was detained for cocaine smuggling, but he will pilot it back to its home port of Port-de-Paix. Charles has been guiding boats to Miami from Haiti for twenty years. "Many of the boats they are banning were built in the United States and purchased here by Haitian owners," he says. "Now they tell us we have to change this or that or we can't operate here. It is not fair. It is an abuse."

Miller insists that all boat owners, including Haitians, were given adequate warning of the new regulations. He gets no pleasure from their problems. "I've had boat owners come to my office, sit in front of me, and cry because of all this," he says. But Miller also maintains that legitimate traders will forge alliances and buy bigger, steel-hull boats. Those who used to profit from illegally smuggling immigrants or transporting narcotics will no longer be able to do it on the river.

Downstream, bridge tender Wellington remembers all those colorful boats like the Pov Yola. Yes, the river will be a bit less colorful, he says. But he thinks Miller has done a good job. He sees a cleaner, safer river flowing beneath him.

"He has been amazingly easy to get along with," states Wellington, staring out to sea. "Especially for a bureaucrat.

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