With a pen stroke this week, President Obama ended the decades-old policy of treating Cubans coming to the United States as de facto refugees.
And by doing so, he blurred the distinction between the oppressive Castro regime and its victims, the Cuban people, said the head of a Miami-based human rights group.
“He put human rights at the bottom of the agenda instead of at the top,” said Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of Movimiento Democracia. “Nothing has changed in Cuba.”
Thursday, Obama ended the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy that allowed Cubans who reached U.S. shores to stay and become permanent residents after a year, but required those stopped at sea to be sent back to the communist island nation. The end-of-term decision, effective immediately, comes two years after Obama restarted diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Sánchez said he fears the abrupt announcement will cause confusion among Cubans who may not be getting accurate information from their government.
“There is a lack of information and confusion everywhere at this point over when this law take effect,” he said. “It could encourage people to decide to leave, prompting them to do so now thinking they still have some time to get in and remain here.”
Since the diplomatic thaw, Cubans have been fleeing their homeland in increasing numbers, fearing this day would come. The federal government measures migration activity in fiscal years beginning Oct. 1. According to U.S. Coast Guard estimates, the number of Cubans stopped at sea coming to South Florida jumped about 60 percent from FY 2015 to FY 2016 — 7,411 people compared to 4,473.
Cuban migrants successfully entering the U.S. by sea and by land crossing the southwest border shot up from 7,458 in fiscal year 2009 to almost 50,000 in fiscal year 2016, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures.
Sánchez calls the migration flux “the silent exodus” and said neither the Castro government nor the Obama administration wants to acknowledge its existence.
“The Cubans don’t want it to encourage their citizens to leave,” Sánchez said. “The U.S. government doesn’t want to talk about it because they risk reducing the continued dialogue.”
Sánchez’s organization made headlines last year when it provided pro bono legal representation to almost two dozen Cuban migrants who made it to the American Shoal lighthouse in the Lower Keys in June before being stopped by a Coast Guard crew. Movimiento Democracia lawyers argued unsuccessfully in federal court that the lighthouse, about 6.5 nautical miles off Sugarloaf Key, counts as U.S. soil under wet-foot, dry-foot. Movimiento Democracia has since filed an appeal.
To South Florida’s heavily Cuban-American population, Obama’s 11th-hour decision to stop wet-foot, dry foot received a cool reception.
“Why do it the last minute before he leaves office,” asked Peter Garcia of Key Largo as he sat at the counter inside the Sunrise Latin Cafe in Tavernier. “We really don’t know the truth about anything anymore.”
Garcia, 54, came to the United States from Cuba when he was 2 years old.
“This is sad,” he said. “This country has been built on immigration from the day it started.”
Eduardo Barandiaran, 60, was born in Miami but his parents came to the states from Cuba about a decade before Fidel Castro’s revolution. Barandiaran has family members who were jailed for their political beliefs after Castro came to power in 1959
He blasted Obama’s decision because he said human rights for the Cuban people remain abysmal despite warming relations between the outgoing administration and the Castro regime, and regardless of Fidel’s death in November.
“I really believe Obama thinks with his visit to Cuba, things changed. I heard a statement that came from the White House saying it’s a new era,” Barandiaran said Friday. “That’s absolutely false. The tyranny, no freedom of speech of any kind and the oppression continues within the island of Cuba. Why else would the people risk their lives crossing over in manmade rafts and shark-infested waters to reach freedom.”
Ultimately Sánchez said Obama made the United States’ immigration problems worse with his decision.
“I think President Obama just created the status of the Cuban undocumented immigrant,” he said. “Cubans are not going to stop fleeing the Castro dictatorship.”
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204