The combination of a vicious and mysterious assassination of Haiti’s president and unprecedented anti-government protests in Cuba spell political danger for US President Joe Biden should they engender a massive flow of refugees.
Biden already faces criticism for allowing tens of thousands of largely economic migrants, mostly from Central America, to cross illicitly from Mexico. Another wave directly from Haiti and/or Cuba landing on Florida’s shore would present the administration with a supplemental headache.
Biden gets generally favorable reviews for his handling of the US economy and the Covid-19 pandemic, but not for border control. Polls show anywhere from 55% to 60% disapproval of his handling of the migrant influx. In February, about 97,000 migrants crossed illegally; by May, the monthly number had risen to about 180,000.
Since the late 1970s, policies of American presidents toward Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, and Cuba, suffering the persistent stagnation of a decayed Communist revolution, have centered on avoiding an uncontrolled refugee influx.
The nightmare political prototype arose late in the single-term presidency of Jimmy Carter. In 1979, 10,000 Cubans stormed the Peruvian Embassy in Havana with hopes of obtaining political asylum. Carter off-handedly remarked, “We’ll continue to offer an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination.”
Fidel Castro, confronting political chaos, responded by gathering some 150,000 of his citizens at the port of Mariel, west of Havana, and inviting Cuban exiles from Miami to come to carry them away – which they did, in all kinds of boats, from April 15 to October 31, 1980.
Carter’s critics seized on the ensuing chaos to paint him as naïve at best and, in view of his handling of the hostage-taking of American diplomats in Iran, chronically weak. He lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan.
Almost forgotten in all that was a similar problem Carter faced with Haitian migrants, hundreds of whom were coming ashore in Florida on rickety boats. He ordered Haitians who arrived after October 1980 to be deported back to Haiti. President Reagan reinforced the rejection by having the US Coast Guard turn them back at sea.
Since then, Republican presidents George H W Bush, George W Bush and Donald Trump, along with Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have consistently deported Haitians.
Cubans were in a different category, favored for having fled Communism. For decades, they could stay in the US if they set foot on American soil before being interdicted at sea. But Obama canceled the so-called “dry foot” exception and began to treat Cubans like other migrants.
All told, about a million Haitian-Americans and some 2.3 million Cuban-Americans currently reside in the US. The population of Haiti and Cuba is about 11.3 million each.
Biden began to ease migration restrictions for Haitians but not for Cubans, who had disappointed Democrats by voting for Trump in 2020. In May, the president extended the “temporary protected status” program for Haitians that allowed them to stay in the United States for at least another 18 months.
Obama had first offered the program, which allows Haitians provisional asylum, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital.
Administration officials said the latest extension was due to “an acute political and security crisis and … enduring humanitarian challenges.” Haiti has been beset by months of gang crime, kidnapping and violent political rivalries. Not a single dose of anti-Covid vaccine has been delivered to the country.
And all that was before the July 7 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise at his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince. Two dozen men, some Colombian, some Haitian-American, stormed Moise’s villas, shot him a dozen times and fled. Some were captured quickly, others were caught as they holed up in the Taiwanese embassy. Their motives are as yet unclear.
Fear of a migration wave was immediate. Over the weekend, the nearby Bahamas sent ships to the waters of Haiti to interdict fleeing migrant “boat people.” Refugee activists are warning of a massive flow to come. During the past six months, around 10,000 Haitians have massed along the US border with Mexico trying to enter the United States.
In the meantime, Cubans had already been flocking to the US land frontier. US border authorities reported that about 22,000 were caught crossing during the past 12 months. The Trump administration expelled the new arrivals; the Biden administration let them in.
With political unrest erupting, Biden’s top official in charge of border control warned Cubans not to try crossing the Florida Straits. “The time is never right to attempt migration by sea,” advised Alejandro Mayorkas, who heads the Department of Homeland Security. “If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States.”
He made no mention of the southern border, perhaps because Biden insists the situation there is under control.
What to do about the dire migration possibilities? Some Democratic Party activists are urging Biden to send troops to pacify Haiti, warning that “what happens in Haiti does not stay in Haiti.” So far, Biden is resisting the call. Having just abandoned Afghanistan, he is unlikely to initiate a project to fix Haiti.
As for Cuba, Biden and his supporters have been circumspect in their comments. First, an administration official tweeted that the demonstrations were only about Covid. After criticism for downplaying demonstrators’ chants of “Freedom!” another official cautioned the Cuban government not to use violence to break up the protests.
Finally, Biden himself settled on calling upon “the Cuban regime to hear their people and serve their needs at this vital moment.”
The low-key approach suggests he may have noticed complaints from the Cuban government, made earlier in July, that the US was purposely attracting Cubans to migrate. Then, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel accused Washington of paying protesters to take to the streets of Cuban cities.
In any case, be assured that there will be no declarations of open hearts and arms, for either the Cubans or the Haitians.
Daniel Williams began his career reporting on Latin America for the Miami News, worked for the Spanish-language section of the Herald at the time of the Mariel boat exodus and has continued his involvement since then.