Life in the Echo Chamber

The day after the Coast Guard fiasco involving six Cuban rafters off the beaches of Surfside, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart went to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and called on the Clinton administration to suspend its 1995 immigration accord with Cuba. "This administration's policy toward Cuba can no longer hold," the South Florida Republican declared. "The administration cannot continue to sweep the Cuban crisis under the carpet. The Cuban crisis and the tragedy of the oppression of the Cuban people must no longer be treated as an immigration issue."

This is not the first time Diaz-Balart has condemned the 1995 agreement with Cuba. The congressman has long been a critic of the policy. The only difference this time was the video being played over and over on television: members of the U.S. Coast Guard using fire hoses and then pepper spray to subdue rafters. It was an egregious, gut-wrenching sight. Who could possibly support an accord that spawned such behavior?

Following Diaz-Balart's speech, the Miami Herald, which had previously supported the immigration accord, ran an editorial titled, "Scrap 'Wet-Feet' Policy On Cuban Refugees." The editorial stated that the "shameful episode [involving the Coast Guard] once again exposed U.S. immigration policy as a porous sieve. Perhaps this time the televised images of Coast Guardsmen and police behaving like Castro's thugs will be jarring enough to provoke Congress and the Clinton administration to fix the holes."

It noted that the 1995 agreement was created out of "a sense of urgency and pragmatism" resulting from an influx of nearly 30,000 Cuban refugees during the summer of 1994. Under the terms of the accord, the United States agreed to issue 20,000 visas for Cubans to legally immigrate to America while repatriating Cubans picked up at sea. The loophole, as is now evident, was that any Cuban reaching dry land would be permitted to stay in the United States.

"For a time," the Herald editorial continued, "it served the humane purpose of ending the tidal wave of desperate people leaving Cuba on anything that could float.... But the policy hasn't solved the problem. The illegal flow, augmented by smugglers, hasn't been stopped. And by specifying that the goal is 'reaching U.S. soil,' the policy creates an incentive to use smugglers with fast boats. Even the definition of 'U.S. soil' is problematic. Does it mean a wet beach? At the three-mile U.S. territorial limit? At the twelve-mile marker for international waters? Aboard a Coast Guard cutter?"

The editorial then noted the comments of Diaz-Balart, who not only called for an end to the immigration accord between the United States and Cuba, but advocated a naval blockade -- designed both to stem the tide of rafters and prevent oil shipments from reaching the island -- if Cuban Pres. Fidel Castro unleashes another mass exodus of refugees.

"The Coast Guard," the editorial went on, "would no longer be regarded as the rafters' 'enemy.' To prevent an influx, the United States would advise Cuba's regime that it faces harsh action, including a blockade, if it then stimulates another uncontrolled exit. Mr. Diaz-Balart's idea has merit as a starting point for reforming Cuban refugee policy. But never forget: The problem is Castro's tyranny. The return of democracy to Cuba is the ultimate solution."

I've read that editorial perhaps ten times trying to understand its key points. In essence it argues that the accord, although well-intentioned, should now be viewed as inadequate and should be replaced with the military threat of a naval blockade.

Over the past week, I've been trying to imagine where such a policy would lead us. My intention here isn't to pick on Diaz-Balart or the Herald. (I happen to be a big fan of the Herald's opinion pages since Tom Fiedler took over as editor.) I'm merely using their statements as a road map to think through a very complex and emotional issue.

Diaz-Balart argues for scrapping the accord on the grounds that it is both immoral and ineffective. The Herald never directly addresses the morality issue, but concentrates instead on the accord's apparent shortcomings as being the main reason for abandoning it.

Let's start with the question of whether the 1995 agreement is fair to Cubans, and, specifically the issue of repatriating rafters picked up in the water. When the images of those six desperate Cubans first appeared on TV screens across South Florida, and then eventually around the world, the reaction was one of revulsion. No one wants to believe those images represent America. The use of pepper spray on refugees in the water was both stupid and unconscionable, and the protests by Cuban Americans that ensued were justified.

But is the larger immigration policy immoral? Is it wrong to turn away people who want to live in the United States, or must we admit everyone who seeks entry? Once you accept the premise that the United States has the right to restrict immigration and control its borders, then it follows that some people are going to be hurt by that policy decision.

When you view recent events through the longer lens of time (say, the past 40 years), no one has been treated better under U.S. immigration policy than Cubans, who continue to receive preferential treatment that is the envy of aspiring immigrants around the world. I'm not arguing that the favoritism afforded Cubans isn't warranted -- now is not the time for that debate -- I'm merely stating a fact that seems too easily forgotten in Miami. Look at the history, starting with Operation Peter Pan in 1960 to the boatlift of 3000 Cubans from Camarioca in 1965 to the Cuban Adjustment Act a year later (which allowed 123,000 Cubans to apply for permanent residence and today provides permanent residency to any Cuban after one year in the United States) to the Freedom Flights of the mid-Sixties and early Seventies to the 125,000 Cubans who arrived during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 to the agreements in 1994 and 1995 that allowed more than 20,000 Cubans, housed in detention camps in Guantanamo and Panama to come to this nation. Add to all this the 20,000 U.S. visas now being issued each year in Havana and it is impossible to argue that Cubans have either been mistreated or victimized by U.S. immigration policy.

The immorality of America's immigration policy exists not in its treatment of Cubans, but in its treatment of the rest of the world when compared with Cubans.

I agree it seems cruel that someone caught in ankle-deep water -- so close to freedom -- could then be shipped back to Cuba. But how is it any less cruel for a person who illegally makes it to the United States and works six days a week for minuscule wages sewing dresses or picking vegetables to one day be rounded up by INS agents and sent back to Guatemala or Honduras or Mexico?

The incident with the Coast Guard off Surfside didn't come about because U.S. policy is too strict with regard to Cubans, but because it's so forgiving. The pictures in the newspaper and the scenes on television were incredibly powerful, but they highlighted the wrong thing. A Cuban refugee caught in the surf being subject to repatriation has focused attention on the absurdity of the "wet-feet" portion of the policy.

The real problem, which no one in Miami dares address, is the dry-land provision in the agreement. Allowing Cubans who reach dry land to stay in the United States, and granting them residency 366 days after they arrive, is the lure that spurs flight from Cuba. Abolish that long-standing aspect of U.S. policy and the flow of rafters would slow to a trickle.

Realistically, though, such a major shift in U.S. policy is not going to happen. Instead we return to the ideas promoted by Diaz-Balart and the Herald, who jointly argue that the 1995 immigration agreement with Cuba is ineffective. More than 1300 Cuban refugees have landed on U.S. soil this year, more than three times the number who made it during the same period last year. Clearly those numbers are troubling, but they're hardly catastrophic. During one two-day period of the rafter crisis in August 1994, for instance, the Coast Guard interdicted nearly 5000 rafters.

Do 1300 rafters landing on our shores this year constitute, in the words of the Herald editorial, a "porous sieve"? Up until this year, it seems, the so-called wet-feet policy worked fairly well. So what's changed? Smugglers. Using fast boats, smugglers now routinely drop off a group of Cubans just a few hundred yards from shore, thereby dramatically increasing their chances of reaching dry land.

So if the immediate problem is smugglers, the Coast Guard should develop a more comprehensive strategy for addressing that specific issue. Does the Coast Guard need more resources? More helicopters? More ships? Can the navy be of assistance? Since smuggling is a crime, should the FBI be more involved? Smugglers appear to use the Bahamas as a jump-off point, but are we pressuring Bahamian officials to do everything in their power to curtail smuggling?

Many of these smugglers are probably well known to Cuban Americans in Miami who hire them to bring family members into the United States. Is the exile community ready to renounce the use of smugglers and help federal agents capture these pirates who profit from the misery of the Cuban people?

Rather than search for answers to these questions, let's follow the Herald editorial. The smugglers win. The United States concedes it is unable to stop the flow of refugees. Enforcement of the 1995 agreement with Cuba is futile, so we abandon the policy. No more repatriations. Janet Reno announces that Cubans picked up in the water -- whether in the Florida Straits or the surf of Miami Beach -- will be brought to America, where they can eventually become citizens. At the same time, we warn Castro that if he unleashes another flood of refugees, we will encircle the island with warships and cut off oil shipments to his country.

Talk about mixed messages. We'll be encouraging Cubans to take to the sea while simultaneously pressuring Castro to use all the brutal, totalitarian means at his disposal to stop people from leaving the island. Where would a policy like this rate on the cruelty scale?

More important, why would anyone be confident that Castro would retreat from the threat of a naval blockade? It seems more likely he would relish the worldwide attention and sympathy he would garner by once again challenging the military might of the United States. Poor little Cuba, surrounded by aircraft carriers and destroyers and submarines. Every day, all day, he'd be the lead story on CNN.

So let's imagine for a moment that Castro allows a mass exodus to occur. Having threatened a naval blockade, we would have little choice but to implement one. Now a new question arises: How far are we willing to go to enforce it? Is the United States prepared to sink an oil tanker that tries to run the blockade? Suppose a Russian-flagged vessel attempts to pass? The Russian military seems eager to reassert itself as a world power; just look at how unpredictable the Russians were in Kosovo. Are we really going to risk reliving the Cuban Missile Crisis because 1300 rafters made it to shore in the first six months of 1999 and some idiot Coast Guardsman used pepper spray on a refugee in the water?

Living in Miami is often like living in an echo chamber. The sound and fury from an event can reverberate for an extraordinarily long period of time, causing those within its boundaries to mistake its true size and meaning. Often what seems deafening in Miami is barely heard anywhere else in the United States.

The incident two weeks ago off Surfside was just such an event.
And now we have the tragic case of a woman drowning when the boat she was on collided with a Coast Guard cutter. According to the Coast Guard, the pilot of the boat foolishly refused orders to stop, deciding instead to cut in front of the cutter. The pilot gambled and a woman lost her life. Within hours of the woman's body being recovered, Diaz-Balart was back on television calling for an end to the 1995 immigration accord. The Cuban American National Foundation, whose patriarch, the late Jorge Mas Canosa, tacitly supported the 1995 agreement, joined Diaz-Balart in calling for an end to the repatriations.

In truth, however, nothing is likely to change. A Clinton administration official told me last week there are no plans to review or alter the 1995 immigration accord with Cuba. Despite the Herald's pronouncement that the policy doesn't work, as far as Clinton is concerned the policy works just fine. And Clinton isn't alone. Diaz-Balart's speech before Congress, and the Herald editorial, may have created a buzz throughout Little Havana and on Spanish-language radio, but it fell flat everywhere else.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas refused to comment on whether the 1995 accord should be set aside. The mayor's spokesman, Juan Mendieta, said he would get back to me with a response. A week later I'm still waiting. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush issued a statement over the weekend condemning Castro but gingerly sidestepping the issue of the accord. Even his brother, presidential front-runner George W., won't say if he would cancel the agreement should he be elected.

No one is looking to create a crisis where none currently exists.


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