The drama unfolded on live television Tuesday. Six Cuban refugees were approaching the Surfside beach near Miami in a wooden skiff when Coast Guard boats surrounded them. As TV cameras recorded the scene from helicopters overhead, the Coast Guard blasted the boat with fire hoses. One of the men was pelted with pepper spray.
Two of the Cubans managed to swim to shore, where they were wrestled to the ground by Surfside patrol officers and handcuffed. The other four surrendered to the Coast Guard.
The televised images were so disturbing that about a thousand Cuban American protesters poured into the streets of Miami that afternoon, forcing a shutdown of the busy MacArthur Causeway during rush hour. Local officials denounced the Coast Guard tactics, including Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, who said, "All they wanted was freedom and assurance that they would not be deported. This shouldn't be how it happened."
Although all six men, aged 17 to 36, were released the next day--and in effect were allowed to remain in the United States, pending asylum hearings--the protests increased when they went public with stories of their alleged treatment by the U.S. Border Patrol, which took custody of them after the Coast Guard confrontation.
Carollo said yesterday that when he visited the refugees in custody, they told him that Border Patrol agents had forced them to pose for a snapshot while holding a photograph of dictator Fidel Castro--an act exile leaders said was tantamount to forcing Jews to pose with a picture of Adolf Hitler or blacks to pose with a Ku Klux Klan photograph. They told Carollo the snapshot of them with the Castro picture was posted in their holding cell, and that an agent, speaking in a threatening manner, said it would accompany them when they were sent back to Cuba.
One of the men told the Miami Herald yesterday that an agent also taunted him with a Spanish slang word for "homosexual."
"Even the toughest type of people, seeing them like I did, they're just kids, 17, 18, 22--it just tore up your heart," Carollo said in an interview yesterday.
Officials with the Coast Guard and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the Border Patrol, said they are investigating the incidents. An INS officer allegedly involved in the case has been reassigned temporarily to duties that do not involve working with detained refugees, a spokesman said yesterday, emphasizing that the agency does not condone "unprofessional conduct."
The episode brought serious scrutiny once again to the Clinton administration's policy, dubbed "wet foot, dry foot," on Cubans trying to enter the country. In place since 1994, after 30,000 Cuban exiles reached South Florida in one year, Cubans fleeing their country who touch U.S. soil generally are allowed to stay. If captured at sea, however, they are sent back to Cuba. Exile leaders have strongly criticized the policy, saying it forces refugees to take greater risks to touch land--and spurs federal authorities to take stricter measures to prevent it.
Critics also charge that it increases high-stakes smuggling of Cubans into the United States by people who charge exorbitant fees and care little for their passengers' welfare. Some authorities voiced suspicions that the six men were participating in a smuggling operation, raising doubts that their flimsy craft could have navigated the entire hundred miles from Cuba.
"The Cuban exile community has been really struck by this treatment, first and foremost, because it happened in a country that has always been symbolic of human rights, freedom and democracy," said Mariela Ferretti of the Cuban-American National Foundation, the country's largest Cuban exile group. "These people were defenseless and their lives were put in danger by the U.S. Coast Guard. What happened with the Border Patrol was adding insult to injury."
A State Department spokesman said yesterday that U.S. policy allows for at least 20,000 Cubans a year to immigrate legally to the United States, and he denounced smuggling, which is reportedly on the increase. "Our point is, we have established safe, legal and orderly procedures to emigrate from Cuba precisely to discourage such dangerous crossings," he said.
Gibran Soto, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami, said the agency continues to investigate the incident. "In this particular circumstance," he said, "the officers were using nonlethal force which they thought was appropriate in order to gain compliance from the Cubans who were refusing to heed the orders from the officers."
But Max Castro, a senior research associate at the University of Miami's North-South Center who often writes newspaper opinion columns about these issues, said the televised nature of the confrontation made it difficult for many to forget--or accept.
"This was a very, very ugly incident that was magnified because it was caught on camera," he said.
Special correspondent Catharine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Hialeah, Fla., Mayor Raul Martinez pleads with demonstrators to leave a highway Wednesday after they blocked road to protest treatment of Cubans.
CAPTION: One of six Cubans comes ashore in Surfside, Fla., on Tuesday after eluding the Coast Guard. Another made it ashore, and the other four surrendered at sea.