Poor Haitians' dilemma: devil or the deep blue sea

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Meet Jean-Renal Cabral: 38-year-old pick-and-hoe subsistence farmer, soft-spoken but proud father of six and No. 1 U.S. foreign policy problem.

His dream -- multiplied by thousands like it -- is a U.S. government nightmare: "I was headed for Florida because I knew it would be a better life and I could have a job and make it possible to bring the rest of my family."


Mr. Cabral, traveling with his 2-year-old son Robinson, was one of several hundred boat people repatriated to Haiti last week via a Caribbean odyssey of rickety boats, U.S. Coast Guard cutters and long days of waiting at the crowded U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He was among the first of 16,000 boat people at Guantanamo opting to return to Haiti instead of taking the Clinton administration's latest offer of indefinite safe haven in camps outside the United States.


The new policy essentially precludes any Haitian boat people from ever reaching U.S. shores, but assures all of them safe haven in athird country until democratic government can be restored in Haiti. U.S. officials are still lining up countries to offer safe havens at U.S. expense, including Dominica, St. Lucia, Suriname, Antigua and Grenada.

As his son plays with Mr. Cabral's earlobe and pats his cheek, the farmer explains the dilemma that a three-meals-a-day-but-no-job safe haven poses.

"My family wouldn't eat if I couldn't get to the U.S. to work," he says, noting that his small plot of vegetables had failed for lack of rain this year.

Though the numbers of boat people embarking have dropped dramatically -- from 12,345 intercepted by Coast Guard cutters in the first week of July to 277 last week -- it's too soon to determine whether the safe haven policy is deterring boat people, says Stanley Shrager, the U.S. Embassy spokesman here.

"We're cautious about drawing any conclusions," he says.

It may be that word is getting out that the $150 fare for a risk boat ride to the United States will buy only an indefinite stay in a refugee camp far away from freedom and work. The national preoccupation with the World Cup soccer matches this month and high seas in the past two weeks also could account for the drop, Mr. Shrager suggests.

Safe haven preferred

Further, he says, safe haven appears to be appealing to many, with about 2 out of 3 Haitians at Guantanamo picking safe haven over a return to Haiti.


While U.S. Embassy flyovers indicate no unusual surge i boat-building, some villages show quite obvious signs of it.

In Simonette, locals are full of stories about nighttime refugee launches and boat building. But no one wants to talk about it.

Five men building a primitive 12-foot sailboat consisting of scrap wood -- some with paint still on it -- stiffen when asked what it's for.

Stories of government harassment of refugee boat organizers make residents hesitant to share information with outsiders.

In July, the hammering and sawing of boat-building can be hear up and down the conch-strewn beach. One workman has eight small boats under construction and another has four.

Smith Elmond, who orders several men around the shells of ne boats, denies that any of his business is for refugees. But he says they may be replacing boats used or stolen for that purpose and destroyed by the Coast Guard as unseaworthy.


In addition to escaping by boat, there is a less risky way o getting out. The United States has beefed up its in-country refugee screening operations -- opening offices in Cap Haitien in the north and Les Cayes in the south.

Only those with a well-founded claim of political oppression qualify for immediate trips out at U.S. government expense.

Refugee applications at U.S. offices have increased 30 percent since the Clinton administration's policy adjustments early this month, including a tougher embargo, safe havens and talk of invasion.

While only about 300 Haitians received political refugee status in the 18 months before January 1993, about 3,000 have been granted that status in the 18 months since then, says a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service official.

1,000 in pipeline

By the time Air France -- the only commercial airline still doing business here -- ends service next week, 1,000 approved refugees will be in the administrative pipeline, says the official. The United States will arrange charter flights to get them safely out of the country.


Immigration officials at the U.S. Embassy explain that some danger exists for refugees awaiting processing. Those in immediate danger of political violence are found hiding places. Others, officials explain, may not have a daily threat to their lives requiring a hiding place but may be under a more generalized threat when they are being active politically.

One man from Les Cayes was granted refugee status recently in Port-au-Prince but made the mistake of returning one last time to his hometown and was held in jail for four days before U.S. Embassy officials could free him.

But there is little obvious tension at the Port-au-Prince docks nTC where Mr. Cabral's boatload landed this week. Most of the Haitians landing there these days say openly that they are fleeing numbing poverty and not through any particular fear of political violence.

Often dressed in their Sunday-best -- for what they thought would be their trip to paradise -- the repatriated boat people line up quietly at the docks to be fingerprinted by police, and the Red Cross offers each $14 for bus fare home.

Several people -- possibly the boat organizers -- are separated by police from the larger group that Mr. Cabral came in with. But after one or two were chewed out by a police captain, all were released.

U.S. officials who come to meet the Coast Guard cutters monitor the process along with soldiers, government officials and Red Cross workers. This produces a strange tension, because the U.S. government does not recognize the authority of the de facto military regime and avoids all official contact.


Mr. Cabral, who managed to maintain a neat appearance in spite of a long, hot return trip during which he was seasick most of the time, says that he doesn't think he wasted the $150 he spent. It was a chance at a better life, he says before boarding a rickety bus for the south.