Haitians Fasting to Protest Hero’s Welcome for Cubans

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Haitians being held in a U.S. immigration detention camp near here have refused to eat since Friday to protest what they charge is preferential treatment given to Cuban refugees.

“We want our freedom like the Cubans,” the Haitians said in a letter released Sunday.

The hunger strike was prompted by the lionization on television talk shows and in the press of two Cuban pilots who in recent days brought 51 Cuban defectors to the United States.

All of the Cubans not only were released almost immediately by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials, but one of the men, former Cuban air force Maj. Orestes Lorenzo, has appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno and “Larry King Live.” And Friday he served as grand marshal of a parade at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.


In their letter, the Haitians locked up at the Krome Detention Camp, most of whom entered the United States illegally in crude wooden boats, said they will refuse food until they are released like “the Cubans who come in planes without documents.”

“I’m worried,” said Cheryl Little, an attorney for Florida Rural Legal Services, who met with three hunger strikers Sunday at Krome. “I’m very concerned about their health and well-being and whether they are getting proper medical care. They say they are not.”

In the letter, the strikers claim that 120 men and 52 women, all Haitian, have refused food since Friday and that 20 men have passed out.

“The doctors don’t want to do nothing,” the Haitians’ letter said, except to insist that those who are fasting eat.

“All Haitian refugees in Krome are ready to eat with our family who wait for us in the USA,” reads the letter, which was brought out of the detention camp by Little. “We want our freedom like the Cubans. Our family are waiting for us.”

Immigration officials could not be reached for comment Sunday. On Friday, Wayne Joy, acting deputy director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami, was reported to have played down the hunger strike, saying that the Haitians had made no strong demands.


But according to Little, the strike was a response to the publicity that followed the exploits of the two Cuban pilots. The Haitians followed those events on television and in newspapers available at the barbed-wire-enclosed camp on the edge of the Everglades, 25 miles west of Miami.

On Dec. 19, 21 months after he defected in a Soviet-built MIG jet fighter, Lorenzo darted into northern Cuba at the controls of a borrowed Cessna and scooped up his wife, Vicky, and two young sons from a highway near Matanzas. From the moment he touched back down in Miami, Lorenzo was hailed as a hero. CNN carried his news conference live.

Ten days later, Carlos Cancio, piloting 52 people on a scheduled AeroCaribe commuter flight from Havana to Varadero, suddenly veered north and landed in Miami--finding himself on the front page of most of America’s newspapers. After 48 of his passengers asked for political asylum, Cancio hugged his wife and three children, who were among those on board, and walked into a tumultuous welcome from Miami’s Cuban community.

Little said that the treatment of the two groups has not been fair.

“We have Cubans arriving saying that they are fleeing economic circumstances but being labeled political refugees by INS when they get here,” she said. “And we have Haitians who are clearly political refugees, who barely escaped Haiti with their lives, but they are being summarily dismissed as economic refugees.”

According to INS officials, the difference between the way Cubans and Haitians are treated is the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which accords those fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist regime as deserving of political asylum. Furthermore, the United States has no agreement with the Cuban president under which defectors can be returned to the island. Cuban arrivals are almost always paroled to relatives or social service agencies within hours.

Most Haitians, on the other hand, are considered refugees from poverty, and, under the Ronald Reagan and Bush administrations, thousands have been repatriated without asylum hearings after they were intercepted at sea. Those Haitians who do enter the United States illegally are entitled to claim political asylum, but many are held in detention while awaiting a hearing.


Little said that many of the hunger strikers have been detained for several months, despite meeting the criteria for parole.

“These individuals, many with excellent political asylum claims, are painfully aware of the double standard which allows certain groups almost immediate release and detains others indefinitely,” wrote Little in a letter that she says will be delivered today to acting INS District Director Carol Chasse.

“My clients meet the criteria for parole,” added Little. “The real reason they are held is that they are Haitian. INS has made no bones about the fact that they detain to deter them from coming here.”

While U.S. officials wrestle with the issue of whether acts such as Cancio’s constitute air piracy or merely are an expression of a longing to be free, many in Miami seem certain that immigration from Cuba and Haiti will continue.

Irwin Stotsky, a professor of law at the University of Miami, has drafted a memo to President-elect Bill Clinton’s transition team in which he asserts that the key to resolving the immigration crisis is restoring democracy to Haiti. If deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is returned to power, “that will alleviate all issues related to Haitian refugees. The people won’t come.”

At the same time, Stotsky added, Haitians who do enter the United States must be afforded the same rights as Cubans. “It’s inequitable now. If you treat Cubans that way, you have to treat everyone similarly situated in a similar way.”