Heroes flee Cuba, those from Haiti are nameless


January 15, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Lorenzo Orestes is a hero. He is the Cuban pilot who defected to the United States in a military jet 22 months ago and then flew back to Cuba in a Cessna a few weeks ago to rescue his family.

Jorge Proenza is also a hero. He and 47 others escaped from Cuba when they seized a commercial airliner last month, landing in Miami to applause and TV cameras.

When it comes to Haitian refugees, however, we do not find heroes.

In fact, we do not even find their names. After searching through dozens of stories on the men, women and children who have braved 600 miles of open water to come to the United States, I cannot find a single Haitian refugee named in the press.

They are merely "boat people." They are "poor" and "miserable" and they threaten to "swamp" Florida.

Unlike the Cubans, who are automatically granted asylum status when they get to Miami, the Haitians are locked up in a federal detention center and jails.

The Cubans say they are fleeing the evils of communism.

The Haitians say they are fleeing the evils of a murderous military-backed regime.

But it is current U.S. policy to believe the Cubans and not to believe the Haitians.

According to the Bush administration, the Haitians are actually fleeing poverty.

And if you are coming to America merely for a better life, that is not good enough.

So U.S. Coast Guard vessels currently intercept vessels carrying Haitians and send them back home.

During the recent presidential campaign, Bill Clinton disagreed with our policy on Haitian refugees and promised that if he was elected, he would give fleeing Haitians a greater chance of coming to and staying in America.

And while recent reports that Clinton's pledge set off enough boat building in Haiti to carry 100,000 Haitians to the United States are probably exaggerated, there is little doubt that the people of Haiti viewed Clinton as their savior.

Trouble is, the people of Haiti are not as familiar with political promises as the people of the United States are. We know they are commitments of convenience.

And if things turn out to be inconvenient, "promises" become "goals" or are "re-evaluated in light of current conditions."

Which is why Bill Clinton broke his promise yesterday to the people fleeing Haiti. He told them he is going to intercept them and send them back just like George Bush did.

The problem is that Florida does not want them. Or at least Florida does not want tens of thousands of them. Florida is still cleaning up after Hurricane Andrew and told Clinton that he better be prepared to ship Haitians to detention centers in other states rather than letting them stay in Florida.

So Clinton has a better solution: Keep the Haitians in Haiti by making Haiti a better place. This is actually a good idea, even if it is not exactly what Clinton promised.

Clinton will try to work out a deal whereby the Haitian military will accept the return of deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Aristide, the first freely elected president in Haitian history, was ousted by a military coup in September 1991 after serving less than 10 months in office.

Under Aristide's presidency, however, the number of Haitians fleeing Haiti significantly dropped, which tends to disprove the theory that those who leave do so chiefly for economic and not political reasons.

Clinton is counting on a restoration of democracy in Haiti as a way of keeping thousands of Haitians from wanting to experience democracy in the United States.

Because no matter what other Band-Aid measures he tries, such as adding more U.S. immigration officers to process refugee applications at the American embassy in Port-au-Prince, thousands of Haitians will continue to flee here if they continue to fear for their lives in Haiti.

And that is Clinton's bind. Because he has no intention of offering Haitians the same status that we now offer Cubans.

That's because Cubans have political clout in Florida and Haitians do not.

Florida does not want a huge influx of Haitians, and Clinton is keenly aware that he lost Florida in 1992 and he surely does not want to lose it in 1996.

So Haitians better hope things get better in Haiti. Because living in the United States is still going to be more a promise than a reality for them.

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