July 1, 1999
By PAMELA MERCER, The New York Times
July 1, 1999
MIAMI -- Miami's large Cuban-American population was bristling with outrage on Wednesday, a day after the Coast Guard used water pumps and pepper spray to turn back a boat carrying six Cubans who had come within 150 yards of the Miami Beach coastline.
The incident, broadcast live on local television, was the topic of the day on Spanish-language radio talk shows and prompted hundreds of protesters to take to the streets, blocking a roadway to Miami Beach and a main road in the predominantly Cuban city of Hialeah.
Local politicians and angry commentators drew parallels between the Government of Fidel Castro and what they said were coercive tactics used by the United States Government through the Coast Guard.
"Today, the Statue of Liberty falls with her arms open wide," declared Ninoska Perez, a commentator on WQBA radio and a member of the Cuban American National Foundation, the powerful lobbying organization.
El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language newspaper, printed a headline on page 1 that read, "Insult to Human Dignity."
In a letter to President Clinton, Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida, wrote, "There is no room in this great nation for a policy of such savage and brutal treatment of refugees whose only crime is the pursuit of freedom."
A Coast Guard spokesman, Jibran Soto, said that the conduct of its officers in the incident was under investigation and that pepper spray was not normally used against a person in the water.
Some protesters directed their ire at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. A crowd of protesters picketed today outside the Krome detention center in west Miami, where the six men were being held.
At issue in Tuesday's incident is an agreement between the United States and Cuba, signed in 1994, under which Cubans intercepted by the Coast Guard at sea are turned back no matter how close they are to shore, while those who make it ashore and turn themselves in can be released on parole for a year and a day and then issued a green card, a privilege granted only to Cubans.
Soto said the six Cubans, all men, were spotted by a Coast Guard airplane on Tuesday afternoon about 400 yards from shore. Four Coast Guard vessels surrounded them, urging the Cubans to turn themselves in, the Coast Guard said. The Cubans jumped off the boat and tried to swim the rest of the way. One, Carlos Hernández Cordoba, 29, said later that he had threatened to commit suicide by getting stuck in the propellers of the Coast Guard boats unless they allowed him to swim to shore. Hernández and Israel Ramos Consuegra, 18, managed to make it ashore.
Daniel Kane, a spokesman for the immigration service in Washington, said the six cases would be reviewed separately. Officials are also investigating whether the men were brought from Cuba by smugglers.
To many people here, the incident is an unfortunate chapter in an immigration policy that, in trying to stave off an exodus from the island while seeking to grant leniency to Cubans fleeing an enemy regime, has led to erratic law enforcement.
Although Kane said the agency had no plans to review its immigration policy on Cubans, Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University, said a review might be inevitable. Coming at the start of a Presidential campaign, Professor Moreno said, the incident could force Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who have both tried to reach out to Hispanic groups, to address the issue in Florida.
Others said the incident was less about immigration policy than about the political influence of Cuban-Americans in South Florida.
"The outcry is a function of the power of Cuban-American politicians in South Florida and the spectacle of seeing the incident live," said David Abraham, a professor of immigration law at the University of Miami. "The Cubans know that they enjoy a privileged situation and they seek to exploit that privilege by smuggling" themselves in.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company
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