By Jaime Hernandez | Staff Writer | Sun-Sentinel
MIAMI BEACH · The United States should work harder to improve relations with Cuba and streamline its immigration policy to allow Haitians to migrate to America, NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume said Saturday.
He also criticized President Bush for visiting Africa when, Mfume says, the White House has refused repeated requests for meetings with leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“I think it’s a little ironic that the president would go to Africa to meet with black leaders, but he won’t meet with black leaders here in the United States,” Mfume said to cheers from supporters at the Miami Beach Convention Center, the site of this year’s convention.
The 94th annual conference began Saturday and is scheduled to run through Thursday. During the six days, NAACP members will discuss a wide range of issues, including immigration, commerce, education and politics. Special guests expected to speak during the event include Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers, and Rachel Robinson, the widow of baseball great Jackie Robinson.
On Monday, Democratic presidential candidates Howard Dean, Bob Graham, John Kerry, Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton will take part in a forum.
Mfume said the United States needs one immigration policy for refugees from Caribbean countries like Cuba and Haiti, which see thousands of residents flee by boat for America every year. While Cuban migrants are usually allowed to stay as long as they set foot on U.S. soil, Haitian migrants almost always are returned to their homeland.
“If we’re going to have a policy for Cubans who come here in different ways seeking asylum, then we ought to have a policy for Haitians that mirrors that,” Mfume said. “Until we have that change, we’re probably going to continue to hear the charges of favoritism [and] charges of racism that exist around our policy with respect to persons trying to enter this country from Cuba versus Haiti.”
During the conference, the NAACP is expected to adopt resolutions urging international financial institutions to release nearly $150 million in aid to Haiti, said Brad Brown, president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade branch. Many banks have stopped lending money to the impoverished nation because it is millions of dollars in debt.
The Bush administration also has not done enough to improve relations with Cuba, said Mfume, whose group met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro last year to push a trade deal between that nation and black U.S. farmers.
Mfume predicted more problems with Cuba unless more is done to improve living conditions there.
“Unless there really is an effort at the highest levels of our government and ... the Cuban government to have dialogue, I think we’re going to keep going in this circle that we’ve been in for a while.”
Mfume said he was sorry Gov. Jeb Bush decided not to attend the event, saying the governor’s presence “would have given him the opportunity to hear us and then to respond to us.”
The governor said he needed to remain in Tallahassee to tend to business for a special legislative session.
The NAACP leader also is expecting an apology from Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas for the reception Nelson Mandela received when he visited Miami in 1990 after being released from a South African prison. Although he received a hero’s welcome in most cities, Cuban-American politicians in Miami refused to officially welcome him, and hundreds of protesters spoke out against Mandela’s support of Castro, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Black leaders in Miami saw that as a snub, and it led a tourism boycott, which didn’t end until county leaders said they would make concessions, such as helping finance a black-owned resort hotel in Miami Beach.
“I see that apology consistent with everything he has done thus far in terms of our interaction with him,” Mfume said. “It takes a big person to be able to apologize. We will appreciate it when it comes.”