Liberal, conservative approaches are no help for people of Cuba, Haiti – Palm Beach Post

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 along 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.” 
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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. 
Wasn’t Joseph afraid of his ship sinking or capsizing and sending him to the sharks? 
“It’s either the chimères now,” he said with a weary shrug, “or the sharks later.” 
Cuba’s dictatorship keeps surviving; Haiti’s monsters keep reappearing. Tightening the screws in one country and playing hands-off in the other will likely only worsen the migrant flood. 
So what’s the point of my elderly recall? What I heard in Cojímar in 1994 and Gonaïves a decade after is what we’re hearing almost two decades later from the thousands of Cuban and Haitian migrants arriving here from Key West to Palm Beach. 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. 
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 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 what it’s surely doing now, is making life more uncomfortable for a resourceful regime — but also making it more miserable for the average Cuban with no resources. There’s an alternative, bleed-and-feed tack to be taken. 
Yes, keep bleeding the regime as much as possible — like keeping U.S. dollars out of its vital state-run tourism industry. But feed the island’s fledgling private entrepreneurs — don’t starve 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 gang rule swallowing the nation? Wi, madam. But we haven’t heard a viable plan that doesn’t include some element of U.S. and/or international muscle – if only as a way to get food, medical and fuel aid to Haitians without 400 Mawozo hijacking it. 
I’m aware past international intervention 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. 
Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for NPR affiliate WLRN. 


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