Washington yaks away; Cubans refugees continue to die
by Julio C. Zangroniz
WASHINGTON, DC -- So the White House finally opened its doors on Wednesday to a carefully selected group of representatives of the Cuban exile/Cuban-American communities to discuss, allegedly, the wet-foot/dry-foot policy.
This monicker summarizes the "official" United States operating orders to return to the Island-Prison virtually all Cubans caught at sea in their attempts to escape from their "sea of happiness," while those fortunate enough to reach U.S. soil can stay.
Most of the time, that is, because we all remember vividly that in early January, the Coast Guard arbitrarily returned to the Island-Prison a group of 15 Cuban hopefuls who had reached the Seven Mile Island Bridge in the Florida Keys after a harrowing 17-hour trip on a homemade boat.
Unfortunately for them, they landed on a part of the old bridge that is no longer connected to solid land. And just five days later, the Coast Guard shipped them right back to Cuba.
But fortunately for those refugees, a federal judge in Miami concluded last week that their return to Cuba by U.S. authorities was illegal, and that the U.S. government should start doing all it can to get the 15 out of Cuba as soon as feasible.
The group reportedly was ecstatic at the legal development, and they have already visited the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to start the required paperwork to be able to leave the island.
As a protest against the illegal Coast Guard action, activist Ramon Saul Sanchez of the Democracy Movement underwent a 12-day hunger strike that contributed, in great part, to focus national and international attention on the highly odoriferous wet-foot/dry-foot policy --perhaps not coincidentally a remnant of the Bill Clinton Administration.
White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri told the Miami Herald that "the [Wednesday] meeting was designed to allow for a serious dialogue, and does not signal any change in policy as it relates to Cubans or any other country's migrants."
How pathetically typical of a Washington DC federal government bureaucrat.
Cuban American Congressman Lincoln Diaz Balart, nevertheless, called the meeting at the White House "frank and fruitful."
One can't help but wonder exactly what those fruits may be. Personally, I think the Cuban community will have better results if they patronize one of those perambulating "fruteros" or "vianderos" recently featured in Babalublog.com. Because what the White House seemed to be tellling its Cuban visitors on Wednesday was: You are here to talk, and we may listen, but don't expect us to actually do anything about it.
For some unexplained reason, the White House omitted from the list of invitees to the Wednesday gathering such relevant figures to this situation as Democrat congressman Bob Menendez, or any of the attorneys who defended the group of "Seven Mile Bridge Group of 15," or any "balseros," returned to Cuba nor not, or --of course-- that good ole "rabble-rouser" Ramon Saul Sanchez, who nevertheless showed up in the nation's capital to do some behind the scenes lobbying, as well as to carry out some media interviews.
"We had hoped that this could be bipartisan, and that it kept in mind not politics, but the rights of balseros," Sanchez told the Miami Herald and Univision. But that objective was not to be realized.
Other elected politicians who might have had a direct bearing on the discussions at the White House, such as Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, had to stay away from the Wednesday meeting due to scheduling conflicts.
At least Nelson tried to have the White House schedule the meeting for today, Thursday, but they would not comply with his request --in spite of the fact that the President and some of his top advisors are traveling in Louisiana, so either way, they would not have been involved in the discussions in Washington.
According to Lincoln Diaz-Balart's office, the group that went to the White House, which included U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, his brother, Mario Diaz-Balart and "several spiritual leaders from Miami's Cuban exile community," according to a report in the Miami Herald, asked the federal government to amend the policy to make it more humanitarian towards escaping Cubans.
"Basically, what we're seeking is procedural rights, a more human, a fairer treatment for the refugees that are intercepted at sea," Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart told NBC.
Among the requests presented to the White House: that migrants receive some legal representation when picked up by the Coast Guard, whether on board U.S. vessels or at the Guantanamo base; that a portion of the 20,000 visas allowed by the U.S. for Cubans be set aside for those picked up at sea and in third countries; and that the federal government review the process by which the Coast Guard determines if migrants have a credible fear of persecution if taken back to the island.
Ironically, one of Lincoln Diaz-Balart's last public appearances took place in Miami, at the Cuban Memorial in Tamiami Park on Saturday, February 25, when he inspected a model of a monument to be built in honor of those countrymen who have fallen in their struggle againt the fidel castro regime --a figure commonly felt to include unknown thousands who have tried to leave the island on anything that may float them away from that Caribbean hell on earth.
Among one of the few indications of progress from the Wednesday meeting was the announcement that Cuban American Emilio Gonzalez, head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, will serve as liaison between Cuban American members of Congress representatives and the Bush Administration.
Meanwhile, Joe Garcia, a Democratic Party consultant, observed that the difficulty in simply getting a meeting with the White House about the matter of the Cuban migrants shows how the Bush Administration brushes off the Cuba issue.
Perhaps something for all registered Cuban-American voters, not only those in South Florida but also around the nation, to keep in mind come the next election.
Presumably, the Wednesday deliberations at the White House were to be continued Thursday, but of course we all will have to await for the next official news release to find out if the effort continues to be "fruitful."
Efforts to reach the White House in connection with this report, both by telephone and through its website, failed to produce any response.