Cuba's government has organized a massive demonstration in Havana today to protest U.S. immigration policies. Last week, 30 would-be illegal immigrants from Cuba disappeared in the Florida Straits - a tragedy Cuban President Fidel Castro blames on the United States. Many Cuban exiles, for different reasons, also oppose the U.S. policy, but immigration officials vehemently reject their arguments.
Tuesday, Cuba's state-run Granma newspaper described U.S. immigration policies as "murderous" and "criminal," saying they have taken a high toll in human lives.
At issue is the so-called "wet foot/dry foot" policy. Imposed in the mid-90s by the Clinton administration and upheld by the Bush administration, the policy dictates that Cubans intercepted at sea are repatriated - while those who manage to reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay.
Cuba says the "wet foot/dry foot" policy is contradictory, and leads would-be illegal immigrants to risk their lives in hopes of eluding the U.S. Coast Guard and reaching U.S. shores.
U.S. officials say nothing could be further from the truth. Dan Kane, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, says the United States is not to blame for the fate suffered by Cubans who flee their country. "It is not the 'wet foot/dry foot' as the Cuban government is alleging," he said. "It is the fact that people want freedom. Cubans would not attempt to leave in such numbers if they were able to life in freedom in their homeland."
Mr. Kane's words are echoed by Miami's large Cuban exile community, which has long maintained that Fidel Castro lies at the heart of Cuba's problems.
But many exiles say the United States is not without blame when it comes to illegal immigration. The 30 Cuban rafters who disappeared last week in the Florida Straits are believed to have been transported by smugglers. Exiles point out that smuggling was unheard of prior to "wet foot/dry foot," when virtually all Cubans were welcomed into the United States - whether intercepted on land or at sea.
Critics say U.S. policy has created a market for smugglers, whose low-lying speedboats are more apt to elude the Coast Guard than rafts or other vessels.
Jose Basulto runs "Brothers to the Rescue," a south Florida exile organization that searches for rafters in the Florida Straits. Mr. Basulto says U.S. immigration policy has been a failure. "It backfired altogether," he said. "And we have seen the continuous traffic of refugees after the 1994 change in the rules for [Cuban] refugee entry into the United States.
Again, INS spokesman Dan Kane disagrees, pointing out that most smugglers are, in fact, Cuban exiles profiting from the illegal transport of human cargo." He said, "We have continuously exhorted the Cuban community not to take the dangerous journey. We have worked vigorously to make sure that smugglers are brought to justice. What we are talking about is organized greed. You have very greedy people in Miami who want to make a fast buck. And they are charging families up to $9,000 to come over on these speedboats. And they are placing the lives of their loved ones at risk.
On this point, there is some agreement. Cuban exile Jose Basulto says he has a simple message for anyone in Cuba planning to flee the island aboard a smuggler's vessel. "Do not do it," Mr. Basulto said. "Do not do it, because it is extremely dangerous."
Every year, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana allows more than 20,000 Cubans to emigrate legally to the United States. U.S. officials say the goal is to encourage legal immigration, and to discourage illegal behavior. Yet the smuggling continues, often with tragic results.