(by Meghan Clyne, NYSun.com) WASHINGTON – Pressure is mounting on President Bush to overhaul America’s “wet-foot/dry-foot” policy on Cuban migration, as cries from lawmakers in Washington and Florida – and the desperation of a hunger striker in Miami – fuel an intensifying furor over the administration’s deportation of 15 Cubans who risked their lives seeking freedom in America earlier this month.
At a press conference in Miami yesterday, the president’s brother, Governor Bush of Florida, said the wetfoot/dry-foot policy “makes no sense,” and said he expects it will be reviewed by the president. Wet-foot/dry-foot – implemented in 1995 pursuant to a pact between President Clinton and Cuba’s dictator, Fidel Castro – stipulates that Cubans crossing the Straits of Florida in search of freedom may stay in America if they make it to American soil. If apprehended at sea, they are turned over to the Castro dictatorship. American policy had previously welcomed Cuban asylum seekers to American shores for 30 years, but wet-foot/dry-foot was adopted after Mr. Castro unleashed about 40,000 Cuban refugees in 1994, overwhelming the American Coast Guard.
Since its implementation, the policy has often generated outrage and heartbreak in the Cuban-American community. On January 4, 15 Cubans were apprehended by the Coast Guard on pilings of the dilapidated Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys. Some parts of the bridge’s remains touch American soil, but the refugees – including a 2-year-old boy – were found on structures that did not reach to the shore, were determined “feet wet,” and were deported to Castro’s dictatorship last week, touching off a political furor in Washington and South Florida and demands for wet-foot/dry-foot to be scrapped.
Speaking to reporters in Miami yesterday, Mr. Bush said his administration intends to meet with “the congressional leadership interested to review the whole subject of wet-foot/dry-foot and Cuban immigration matters.
“I think we need to have a total review of it,” Mr. Bush continued. “We have an agreement with the Castro government and it’s a one-way agreement. We comply with the agreement, Castro doesn’t – that needs to be reviewed. When people can be smuggled into our country that may not have a founded fear of persecution when they arrive, and they pay huge sums of money both in Cuba and here, and they can stay, and others who come risking everything they have and make it to a piling right next to our coast and they can’t – that makes no sense.”
“So a total review of the policy is appropriate,” Mr. Bush said, “and it is going to happen.”
Mr. Bush’s statements come as both houses and both parties of Congress are increasing their efforts to get his brother to overhaul America’s policy on Cuban migration.
In a letter dispatched to President Bush late last week, Rep. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who today will accede to the Senate seat recently vacated by New Jersey’s Governor Corzine, expressed concern about the administration’s “arbitrary and dangerous decision-making regarding the repatriation of Cuban nationals.”
Mr. Menendez, who is Cuban-American, also faulted President Bush for repatriating more than 7,740 Cubans during his presidency, despite having criticized wet-foot/dry-foot during the 2000 presidential campaign.
The congressman urged President Bush, in light of the Seven Mile Bridge incident, to permit approved lawyers aboard Coast Guard vessels to provide legal advice to refugees, and, failing that measure, that all Cubans apprehended at sea be taken to Guantanamo and afforded there the legal and procedural rights granted asylum-seekers who reach American soil.
Mr. Menendez also called on the administration to allocate a fixed percentage of the 20,000 refugee visas that have not been allocated for fiscal year 2005 to Cuban refugees.
A spokesman for Mr. Menendez, Matthew Miller, told the Sun yesterday that the congressman will continue his advocacy in the Senate on behalf of the Cuban people. “It’s something he feels very strongly about, and he’ll continue to fight for a free Cuba.”
A Cuban-American Senate colleague of Mr. Menendez’s, Senator Martinez, a Republican of Florida, is also calling on the White House to overhaul wet-foot/dry-foot in light of the Seven Mile Bridge incident. In a statement, Mr. Martinez called the policy a “complete and utter failure” and an “embarrassment,” adding that the policy is “unilaterally violated by Cuba while we observe the most painful part of it.”
According to a State Department report last year, the Castro dictatorship, for example, routinely denies exit permits to the 20,000 Cubans who receive American visas annually, a number the State Department put at 533 last year, and has not allowed new applications for the American visa lottery since 1998.
In the House, Senators Menendez and Martinez have been joined by Florida’s Cuban-American representatives, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all Republicans. In joint letters dispatched to the administration early last week, the representatives issued the specific requests later echoed by Mr. Menendez.
They have also requested a meeting with the president to communicate the Cuban-American community’s concerns about wet-foot/dry-foot, and are awaiting word from the administration. A staffer familiar with the discussions said that Governor Bush had been in contact with the White House to try to facilitate a meeting with the congressional delegation and other Cuban-American leaders, adding that the representatives were optimistic that the meeting would take place.
Until it does, a leading pro-Cuban democracy activist in Miami, Ramon Saul Sanchez, will continue the hunger strike he initiated on January 7 to protest the repatriation of the 15 Cubans and to help bring about an end to wet-foot/dry-foot.
Mr. Sanchez is the president of the Democracy Movement, which recently brought a lawsuit in federal court against the government in an effort to reverse the Seven Mile Bridge decision. According to an associate of Mr. Sanchez who has been by his side throughout the hunger strike, Roberto Rodriguez Tejera, Mr. Sanchez will continue his fast until the administration promises to meet with leaders of the Cuban-American community and members of Congress.
The drama over Mr. Sanchez’s strike heightened yesterday, as Governor Bush urged the activist to seek medical assistance and announced that a prominent Cuban-American spiritual leader and a retired Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Miami, Augustin Roman, would be intervening. According to Mr. Rodriguez, himself a refugee from Cuba and a former director of Radio Marti, Mr. Sanchez is in an “extremely dangerous” medical situation, suffering from wildly erratic blood pressure. A diabetic, Mr. Sanchez is also threatened by perilously low insulin levels as a result of his 10-day fast.
Mr. Rodriguez, too, urged President Bush to meet with Cuban-American leaders and review wet-foot/dry-foot, not only to save the life of his friend but also to bring about an end to an unjust policy.
“It’s totally inhumane,” Mr. Rodriguez, who fled Cuba during the American-sponsored “Freedom Flights” in 1968, said of wet-foot/dry-foot and the deportations of Cubans seeking liberty here. “That’s not America.”
A spokesman for the White House, Kenneth Lisaius, responded yesterday that “the administration has reached out to representatives of the Cuban-American community to express our interest in hearing and understanding their concerns about U.S. migration policy toward Cuba,” adding that “the administration remains committed to helping the Cuban people hasten the day of Cuba’s democratic transition, and fully understands that the fundamental cause of migration from Cuba is the dictatorship of Fidel Castro.”
Indications of the administration’s efforts emerged Monday, as the U.S. Interests Section in Havana inaugurated an electronic news ticker that will run across the top floor of its building, visible to large swathes of downtown Havana, according to the State Department.
A department spokesman, Eric Watnik, said yesterday that the ticker screens had been installed last year and were first used Monday to broadcast messages of freedom from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The news ticker, Mr. Watnik said, is an effort to inform the Cuban people and to break Mr. Castro’s stranglehold on information by bringing Havana residents unbiased information from the free world. In addition to news updates, Mr. Watnik said, the ticker will communicate services available to Cubans at the Interests Section, and Major League Baseball scores.
“It has been a long-standing goal of U.S. foreign policy to break Castro’s information blockade against the Cuban people,” Mr. Watnik said, “and this project is our latest effort to do just that.”
Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.
1. What is the wet-foot/dry-foot policy? What had the U.S. previously done about asylum seekers?
2. When and why was the wet-foot/dry-foot policy implemented?
3. What incident triggered a new demand to end the wet-foot/dry-foot policy? Explain the incident.
4. What is President Bush’s response to demands for an end to the policy?
5. Who is Ramon Saul Sanchez? Why is he on a hunger strike? When will he end his hunger strike?
6. Though done for a noble cause, why might Mr. Sanchez’s hunger strike not succeed in causing President Bush to meet with leaders of the Cuban-American community?
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