© 2024 WFIT
Public Radio for the Space Coast
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Conservative and liberal wishful thinking won't end Cuban and Haitian misery

 Same as it ever was. Cuban migrants arriving at the Florida Keys last year.
U.S. Coast Guard
Same as it ever was. Cuban migrants arriving at the Florida Keys last year.

COMMENTARY What we're hearing from Cuban and Haitian migrants now is what they've been telling us decade after decade. Let's get real about their misery.

To all the conservatives who are sure the flood of Cuban migrants in the Florida Keys means the communist dictatorship in Havana is about to fall, let me share a remembrance.

In the summer of 1994, I traveled Cuba’s north coast interviewing people as they prepared to launch rafts — ingeniously jury-rigged with old tires and lawn-mower engines — headed for Florida. It was one of the island’s most epic exoduses, amid the harrowing throes of the foodless, jobless, hopeless “special period.”

I sat in one rickety vessel with Wilma Pérez, an accountant in Cojímar, Cuba, and asked her if she feared being intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to a tent camp at Guantánamo.

“I don’t care if they send us to Alaska or Africa,” she said, “as long as we go somewhere we can eat.

READ MORE: Cubans challenge the claim that they're privileged...by asserting their privilege

Now, to all the liberals who insist Haitians alone can overthrow the de facto gang dictatorship in Port-au-Prince that’s driving the flood of Haitian migrants to the Florida Keys, let me share another anecdote.

In the winter of 2004, I found Haitian fisherman Michel Joseph beside his own questionable boat on a beach at Gonaïves. He and a group were set to escape one of Haiti’s worst episodes of violent political chaos. Less than a hundred yards away I’d just seen armed, pro-government thugs known as chimères, or fire-breathing monsters, put an opponent against a wall and almost execute him — until they noticed me and other foreign journalists watching and called it off.

But wasn’t Joseph afraid of his ship sinking or capsizing and sending him to the sharks? I asked.

“It’s either the chimères now,” he said with a weary shrug, “or the sharks later.”

So what’s the point of my elderly recall? What I heard in Cojímar in 1994, and Gonaïves a decade after, is essentially verbatim what we’re hearing almost two decades later from the thousands of Cuban and Haitian migrants arriving here from Key West to Key Largo. It’s a reminder that the Cuban regime survived the special period; it’s a reminder that fire-breathing monsters like the chimères — or the Tonton Macoute a generation earlier and gangs like 400 Mawozo today — keep reappearing in Haiti like medieval plagues.

Would I like to believe that the more than 500 desperate Cuban migrants who landed in the Keys over the New Year’s weekend are a sign that the regime will melt away any day now like the Wicked Witch of the West? Sí, señor. But unfortunately I know better. And I fear we’re being seduced, as we were in the 1990s, into thinking that if we just keep turning the embargo screws tighter, the witch and her flying monkeys will fall to the democratic Dorothy.


What that approach did during the special period, and is surely doing now, is admittedly to make life more uncomfortable for a resourceful regime — but also to help make it more downright miserable for the average Cuban with no resources. That's why, as I’ve argued before in this space, there’s an alternative, bleed-and-feed tack to be taken.

 Same as it ever was. More than 100 Haitian migrants wait to be processed after landing off Key Largo this week.
David Goodhue
Miami Herald
Same as it ever was. More than 100 Haitian migrants wait to be processed after landing off Key Largo this week.

On the one hand, yes, keep bleeding the regime as much as possible — like keeping U.S. dollars out of its vital state-run tourism industry. But keep feeding the island’s fledgling private entrepreneurs — not starving them, as no-engagement-with-Cuba conservatives keep demanding — because their growing economic independence can in the long run help undermine a dictatorship that isn’t likely going anywhere in the short run.

Would I also like to believe that Haiti — specifically, a civil society-backed interim government liberals are pushing for — can by itself overcome the vicious gang rule swallowing the nation? Wi, madam. But unfortunately, we haven’t heard a genuinely viable plan that wouldn't require some element of U.S. and/or international muscle – if only a way to get food, medical and fuel aid to Haitians without 400 Mawozo hijacking it.

I’m more than aware that past international intervention too often exacerbated rather than solved Haiti’s problems — and that any future intercession has to be done in real consultation with Haitians for a change.

But Haiti and Cuba just keep proving to be perpetual misery machines. Neither liberal nor conservative wishful thinking is going to end that — or the flood of migrants.
Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.