LIKE Caribbean stepping stones off the southernmost tip of the United States lie the Western Hemisphere's last two antidemocratic pariahs - Cuba and Haiti.
The US reception of the desperate people fleeing these troubled nations is starkly different. Even US officials agree that how the US defines a refugee says more about domestic politics than about the dire situations the refugees are trying to escape.
US Coast Guard cutters began the forcible return this week of Haitian boat people. More than 10,000 of these people in the months since the Sept. 30 military overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide have risked their lives to leave their politically torn and poverty-stricken homeland. Those that didn't die at sea were never allowed into the US, but were plucked from rickety boats to be held at a refugee camp at the US Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
Meanwhile, on the north side of the island, on any given day, there will be Cubans planning a rafting escape from communism. It is common knowledge - reinforced by US government radio broadcasts - that if they can make it the 90 miles to US shores, they'll soon be legally walking Miami streets.
US officials - at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the State Department, and Congress - privately admit that the preferential treatment of Cubans over all other nationalities, not just Haitians, is a remnant of the cold war as well as the spoil of the powerful Cuban-American lobby based in southern Florida.
The treatment of Haitians is more complicated, blending international politics with even a dose of current presidential politics, say these US officials and other foreign policy experts. It also has drawn criticism in the human rights community.
"During the cold war, people fleeing communist regimes were warmly welcomed because of the ideal of braving the high seas to escape Vietnam [or Cuba], running through mine fields in Czechoslovakia, or jumping the wall in Berlin. Now people are less generous with the concept of asylum," observes Sylvana Foa, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights.
In an unusually public move for a commission charged with quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the commission this week joined in the general outcry of criticism of the policy by human rights groups. As the first 380 Haitians were returned to Haiti Feb. 3, the commission suggested that the US could have continued to hold the boat people until the Haitian political scene was more stable, and criticized other nations in the hemisphere participating in sanctions against Haiti for not offering to share the bu rden of the refugees.
Both Haiti and Cuba are the subject of US trade embargoes aimed at changing repressive political conditions. The 30-year-old Cuban embargo is aimed at ejecting the communist dictator, Fidel Castro. The new Haitian embargo - freshened last week by the recall of the US ambassador to Port-au-Prince in protest of political assassinations there - is calculated to reseat Aristide, that nation's first democratically elected president.
US policy considers virtually all Cubans escaping the island to be political refugees because the very act of trying to emigrate is illegal in Cuba, making the emigre a political criminal. (The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allows any Cuban admitted or paroled into the US, who stays one year and is otherwise eligible, to become a legal resident. Passed by Congress, it has repeatedly survived repeal attempts.)
The Haitian boat people on the other hand, are considered largely to be fleeing poverty, and so not qualified under legal guidelines for political asylum. Last week the US won the right to repatriate Haitians after a protracted legal battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
The return of Haitians can send mixed international signals. The forced repatriation may discourage future waves of boat people. But it raises questions about why the US would return even economic refugees to a nation it and its hemispheric allies have condemned as illegitimate and in violation of human rights.
Many observers suggest that the Bush administration can ill-afford the prospect of thousands of boat people taxing government coffers in an election year fraught with economic problems.
But defending the policy, one US official involved in forming State Department policy says, "The boat people are deserving of understanding and pity. But a situation that is violent, poor, and lawless is not ipso facto qualification for admitting them to our country. If we stood up and announced we'd take any Haitian, the country [Haiti] would clean out real fast."
This official notes that the massive wave of 125,000 Cubans in the 1980 Mariel boatlift was more readily accepted into this country because of the economic power and political clout of Cuban-Americans - clout that Haitians just don't have.