Page last updated at 19:31 GMT, Friday, 20 January 2006

Bridge too far for Cuban exiles

By Simon Watts
BBC News, Miami

The White House has agreed to talks about immigration policy for Cubans after pressure from the influential exile community in Miami culminated in protests and a highly-publicised hunger strike.

Cuban-Americans protest against the deportation of their relatives
Cuban-Americans have held protests demanding justice
Cuban-Americans are furious about a decision by the US Coast Guard to send back a group of migrants who reached a disused bridge in the Florida Keys island chain after making the dangerous sea crossing from Cuba.

Conscious of the political importance of the one-million-strong exile community, Florida Governor Jeb Bush intervened to ensure that the White House receives a Cuban-American delegation.

Exile groups had warned that the Republicans might not be able to count on their traditional Cuban-American support in forthcoming elections, such as the US Congressional vote in November.


The uproar started shortly after the New Year, when 15 Cuban migrants came ashore on the Old Seven Mile Bridge, which lies on the road to Key West.

The bridge - built by the Florida pioneer, Henry Flagler - was abandoned after a more modern structure was constructed alongside in the early 1980s. Some sections of the old bridge have since collapsed.

The US government finds itself in a difficult political position... If it loosens the rules too much, it could encourage an influx of illegal immigrants from Cuba, like one in the mid-1990s
Under the current rules for Cubans - known as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy - migrants who reach US soil are generally allowed to stay and apply for residence, while those caught at sea are mostly deported.

In this case, the US Coast Guard ruled that the 15 Cubans had to be sent back because the part of the bridge where they had landed was no longer attached to dry land.

To exiles - who believe Cuban migrants are fleeing an oppressive regime - the decision smacked of bloody-mindedness.

And it seemed to confirm that the US authorities want to apply the "wet foot, dry foot" rules more strictly. The number of Cuban boat-people has been rising recently, with nearly 3,000 intercepted in the last fiscal year.


The Cuban-American community soon started to make its anger known in protests that united hardline opponents of Fidel Castro and moderates favouring dialogue with Havana.

Columnists fumed in the Miami Herald newspaper, two state department officials in charge of Cuba policy were harangued at a lunch with Cuban business leaders, and protesters lined up along highways with banners demanding justice.

Ramon Saul Sanchez
God has heard our prayers... The doors have been opening in Washington for the government to listen to our concerns about US migration policy
Ramon Saul Sanchez
Cuban-American politicians holding national office lobbied hard in private and were fiercely critical in public.

Republican Senator Mel Martinez said the ruling showed the "wet foot, dry foot" policy was "a complete and utter failure".

The anger in Miami really grabbed headlines when Ramon Saul Sanchez, the leader of the Democracy Now pressure group, started a hunger strike to demand a response from the federal government.

As television bulletins carried interviews with Mr Sanchez from his roadside bed in the Little Havana district, Governor Bush made calls to the White House, which is run by his brother.

Under pressure on several fronts, the White House agreed to receive a Cuban-American delegation and Governor Bush was able to announce the news on a visit to Miami.

"God has heard our prayers," Mr Sanchez said, as he consumed his first food for more than 10 days. "The doors have been opening in Washington for the government to listen to our concerns about US migration policy."

Better chance

In their meetings to discuss the "wet foot, dry foot" rules, the Cuban-Americans will push for wholesale change.

Mariela Conesa, holds a photograph of husband and son who were among the repatriated Cubans
Some exiles fear the US is becoming stricter on immigration
First, they want a clear definition of what qualifies as US soil, to avoid a repeat of decisions like the one involving the Old Seven Mile Bridge.

A judge has already agreed to consider a request by Cuban-American lawyers to define dry land as anywhere within US territorial waters - a ruling that would sharply increase the number of migrants eligible to stay.

Exile groups also want Cubans caught at sea to have a better chance to make their case for residency in the US. This would mean giving migrants proper legal representation and a formal immigration hearing.

Another suggestion is that some of the 20,000 visas allocated to Cubans each year be set aside for those caught on the sea crossing to Florida.


Some sort of reform seems likely, especially as the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is committed to reconvening her department's strategy panel on Cuba.

But the US government finds itself in a difficult political position. If it loosens the rules too much, it could encourage an influx of illegal immigrants from Cuba, like one in the mid-1990s.

At that time, President Clinton was forced to adapt Cold War legislation which had given all fleeing Cubans the right to asylum from a communist government. The "wet foot, dry foot" rules introduced a threat that at least some boat-people could be sent back.

The Bush administration also knows that other migrant communities resent Cuba being a special case because of its long-running conflict with the US.

Most Haitians, for example, are deported if they enter without papers, even though their country is poorer than Cuba and has experienced decades of political turmoil.

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