Out of the West: Haitian ghosts sound warning for El Dorado

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The Independent Online
MIAMI - Thanksgiving day is almost over and, in the silky warmth of the Florida night, sybarites, hustlers and tourists from a dozen lands are consuming turkey dinners with all the trimmings al fresco, at the pavement bars and eateries on Miami Beach. More sedately, the same national ritual is being observed inside the glossy hotels along Miami's waterfront.

Just behind one of them however, some 70 Haitian refugees are giving the festival a special meaning. The organisers of the last voyage of the Victoria Express have picked their moment perfectly. Six days earlier, crammed with her desperate human cargo, she left north-west Haiti. After two stops in the Bahamas, the 60ft-long wooden freighter of most questionable seaworthiness finally reaches journey's end at around 10pm.

After slipping past the southern tip of Miami Beach peninsula, she wafts silent and unobserved alongside the cruise ships moored in the bay, into the mouth of the Miami river. There, at a jetty behind the Dupont Plaza, it berths. Beneath the astonished eyes of a solitary hotel security guard, the secret passengers jump ashore and scurry to two getaway vans waiting near by.

The US Customs and Border Patrol, doubtless engaged in Thanksgiving celebrations of their own, are nowhere to be seen. When they do appear, it is too late.

Thus Miami, refuge, melting pot and El Dorado for the downtrodden and oppressed of the Caribbean, welcomes another batch of illegal, unwanted immigrants - and thus the US government, in general, and the incoming Clinton administration, in particular, receive advance warning of the last thing they need: a new wave of Haitian boat people.

Fifteen months have passed since the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In that time, 38,000 Haitians have been caught trying to make the perilous voyage to the US, having paid an average dollars 500 ( pounds 330), or five times the national annual wage, for the privilege. Countless others must have been drowned; a few presumably made it safely, undetected.

But of those intercepted, only 10,000 were permitted to apply for political asylum; the rest, under the harsh restrictions imposed by President Bush last May, were classified as economic refugees and sent back to the mercies of the regime they were trying to escape. Not surprisingly, on the streets of Port-au- Prince, Bill Clinton's election is viewed as the Second Coming.

The president-elect has been maddeningly inscrutable over most aspects of his future policy. But he has made one promise: that he will end instant repatriation and make it easier for Haitians genuinely fleeing persecution from the military regime in Port-au-Prince to secure asylum. His word, very probably, is about to be put to the test.

The storm season in the Caribbean is over; aerial surveys by the US Coast Guard a couple of weeks ago counted 635 boats in Haiti's ports and harbours that could ferry escapees to Florida, with at least 100 more under construction. In short, a veritable armada of Victoria Expresses is poised for the Miami run.

Indeed, the process may have already started. In November alone, 250 Haitians evaded the Coast Guard cordon sanitaire around the island to reach the Florida coast; just three days before the Thanksgiving miracle at the Dupont Plaza, US Customs agents stopped and searched another small Haitian vessel in the Miami river as it approached another hotel, the Hyatt Regency. They suspected drugs; what they found were 62 boat people, including 18 women jammed into a secret compartment by the engine-room, at one point just 1ft wide and 3ft 6in high. 'My God, My God', cried one refugee in relief as he was taken ashore.

What will happen to them is anyone's guess. Most are likely to be released on parole, pending hearings of their cases. Having reached US shores, they cannot be summarily sent home - and after Hurricane Andrew, there is next to no available detention space.

But the broader dilemma is Mr Clinton's. Why should Haitians be treated differently from Cubans (1 million of them are already in and around Miami), who become legal residents the moment they set foot on American soil? Can hard-pressed southern Florida be expected to absorb yet more immigrants? Put bluntly, can he operate a more humane immigration policy without tackling the problem at its root with an all-out diplomatic (even military) effort to restore Mr Aristide?

Such are the unforgiving realities of power. But for the Thanksgiving party aboard the Victoria Express, such considerations are academic. They made it, and they're free. That's all that matters.