BY ALFONSO CHARDY | Miami Herald
Florida’s two U.S. senators, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Bill Nelson, have radically different views about the increasingly controversial wet-foot, dry-foot policy for Cubans coming here by boat.
Martinez says he favors going back to policy from more than a decade ago, when virtually all Cuban migrants were rescued by the Coast Guard and brought ashore. Nelson supports keeping the 1994 policy that usually returns Cubans caught at sea but wants it more ‘‘fairly’’ enforced so Cubans who reach any portion of the United States, even an unconnected bridge, are allowed to stay.
The policy is once again in the headlines as eight Cuban migrants, survivors of a tragic voyage in which six others died, were found on a deserted island in the Bahamas. Seven of the migrants were turned over to Bahamian officials Sunday, despite Cuban-American leaders’ pleas to allow the migrants into the United States. Only one survivor, who was airlifted to a Florida Keys hospital, was allowed to stay.
Under wet-foot, dry-foot, Cubans intercepted at sea are generally repatriated, while those who reach U.S. soil usually get to stay. By contrast, other migrants caught by federal officials on land or at sea are detained and, in the case of Haitians, almost always returned to their homeland.———————————————- Havana Journal Advertisements————————————————
On Jan. 9, U.S. officials returned 15 Cubans after they landed on an old Florida Keys bridge—because the structure was no longer connected to land.
The decision roiled the Cuban exile community, and the Bush administration promised the U.S. House’s Cuban-American members to meet soon to discuss the exile community’s concerns.
Martinez, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, hopes to persuade colleagues to hold hearings on the U.S.-Cuba migration accords, which stopped a rafter exodus and led to the wet-foot, dry-foot policy.
‘‘I thought it was a bad agreement, a bad treaty,’’ Martinez told The Miami Herald recently in Washington. ``The migration accords with Cuba . . . were not good for the United States, were not good for the people of Cuba who seek freedom. I never have thought that.’‘
Martinez added that the conditions that existed in Cuba at the time the accords were negotiated have worsened. He also accused Fidel Castro’s communist government of not honoring the accords.
‘‘The implementation of the accords has been one-sided,’’ he said. ‘‘The United States adheres to the strictest sense of the law, including the absurd notion we saw just a few days ago about what constitutes American soil and what doesn’t,’’ he said, referring to the Keys bridge to nowhere.
Martinez said Havana has not honored its commitment to allow U.S. monitoring of how repatriated Cubans are treated upon return.
Nelson, for his part, said the problem isn’t the policy—it’s the way the Bush administration implements it. The Democrat endorses the policy ``if it is applied without this highly discriminating heart-of-stone that the administration has.’‘
Nelson added that the Clinton administration started the policy ``to protect our borders so you don’t have waves of immigrants suddenly flooding the shores of America. We should put it in context.’‘
As for the U.S. treatment of Haitian migrants, Nelson noted that Haiti, despite chaos, is holding elections.
Nelson said the policy toward Cubans stems from conditions on the communist island under a ‘‘repressive dictator.’’ He also said while conditions in Haiti have ‘‘deteriorated,’’ people there are not under a ``repressive dictator.’‘
Still, Nelson said he has urged the Bush administration to stop deporting Haitians until conditions improve.
Martinez would not comment on the Haitian community’s frustrations, but he noted that federal law, authorized by the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, grants Cubans special status because they live in a dictatorship.
‘‘Repression, oppression in Cuba today is probably harsher than it has been in many, many years,’’ Martinez said.