In the Florida Keys on Jan. 5, the Coast Guard removed 15 Cubans from an unused bridge unconnected to land, sending them back to Cuba four days later. Right-wing Cuban Americans are up in arms. Once more the special role played by undocumented Cuban immigrants in the history of U.S.-Cuba relations is on display.

Ramon Saul Sanchez, head of the “Democracy Movement,” fasted for 12 days until Bush administration officials agreed to hold talks with Cuban American leaders. His group joined Florida family members of the deportees in suing the Coast Guard. U.S. Judge Federico A. Moreno held hearings Feb. 15 and promised a quick decision.

Declaring that “a total review of the policy is appropriate,” Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Jan. 17 called for a meeting with congressional leaders and Washington officials. The date for the meeting is March 8, according to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Sen. John McCain took the occasion of a Miami fund-raising visit to join his hosts in calling for a policy review.

Sen. Mel Martinez called U.S. policies a “complete and utter failure” as he referred to “arbitrary and dangerous decision-making regarding the repatriation of Cuban nationals.” Martinez, three Cuban American representatives from Florida, and New Jersey’s Sen. Robert Menendez are pressuring the Bush administration. The president of the Cuban American National Foundation advised Republicans not to take Cuban American loyalty for granted.

The 15 Cubans were part of a scenario fashioned over decades to score propaganda points over Cuba and to placate counterrevolutionary Cuban Americans.

The 1966 U.S. Cuban Adjustment (CAA) allows undocumented Cuban immigrants to stay and then, after a year, gain permanent residence. Upon arrival, they receive work permits, Social Security numbers and welfare benefits. During the 1960s, Washington spent over $1 billion helping newly arrived Cubans find jobs, homes and social services.

The effect has been to entice Cubans to cross the Florida Straits in small boats. The Cuban government says 15 percent of this population dies in the process. The scenario has come to include transportation services. Migrants each pay $8,000 to $12,000 for a pick-up off Cuba and a trip to Florida. Officials there are accused of turning a blind eye to institutionalized human smuggling.

The Clinton administration initiated the third part of the drama. According to a 1995 administrative ruling, Cubans apprehended at sea are returned to Cuba. Those who make it to U.S. soil, or sand, stay. This is the part of the policy that is now under the gun.

The two nations signed Migratory Agreements that year, their only accord in 45 years. The impetus was the 1994 migration of 35,000 Cubans to Florida. The U.S. government agreed to issue 20,000 entry visas annually to prospective immigrants, using a lottery. That’s when Washington introduced its “wet foot, dry foot” scheme. Immigrants are useful for embarrassing the Cuban government, but large numbers of them are another matter.

Cuba claims the U.S. government has issued far less than the required 20,000 annual visas. Each year from 2000 through 2002, Washington gave out 10,860, 8,300 and 7,237 entry visas respectively. Last year it dispensed 533. Analysts have long observed that restrictions on legal emigration correlate with increased illegal crossings and loss of human life. Washington accuses Cuba of denying exit visas to prospective emigrants.

The Coast Guard Service intercepted 2,712 Cubans at sea last year and 1,225 the year before. All but 2.5 percent were repatriated to Cuba. Sen. Martinez pointed out that during his presidency, George Bush has sent 7,740 Cubans home, while criticizing the “wet foot/dry foot” policy during campaigns.

During 2005, U.S. officials apprehended 3,612 Dominican would-be immigrants at sea, and in 2004, 3,229 Haitians. In 2004, U.S. border guardians blocked 1.2 million foreigners from entering the country, 93 percent of them Mexican. Cubans are unique for the red-carpet treatment they receive. Now, however, high-level agitators in Florida want more; they want the CAA to rule again at sea, and on land.


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.