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shower, wondering if he’d given me
Stop Waffling on Haiti
Soon after his election, President Bill Clinton broke his campaign promise to stop the repatriation of Haitians who had been intercepted trying to make passage to the United States. For this reversal, he was accused of turning his back on Haiti and for playing politics with the lives of thousands of people. I believe, however, that he discovered what the Coast Guard has known for a very long time: with Haiti, what looks black and white at a distance becomes gray upon closer examination.
During my last patrol in the USCGC Tahoma (WMEC-908), we intercepted four boats heading for Florida. When all was said and done, there were six Cubans on our foc’sle and more than 460 Haitians on our flight deck. The first moral conflict began after the Cubans were picked up. We couldn’t keep them with the Haitians, so they were moved forward. Also, they were given coveralls to replace their ragged clothing—something that was not done for the Haitians because of the number of people involved. The next day, the Cubans were put on a patrol boat that took them to Miami; the Tahoma and the Haitians headed to Haiti.
On the trip back, we gave the Haitians clothing, toiletries, blankets, and food; the children seemed thrilled to get any kind of meal from us. Standing watch over the flight deck for eight hours a day or more, however, I witnessed a few ugly moments. For example, some men pushed the children and women out of the way to get into the food line and others took food off the childrens’ plates. Instead of using the heads we had set up on the fantail, usually the men urinated over the side and into the wind. Once, I was hit in the face with a cup of urine that one Haitian had tried to throw over the side— and spent the next 30 minutes in the
AIDS or some other disease I could bring home to my family.
I created a computer program to help the Immigration and Naturalization Service agents keep track of the interviews they had conducted. While entering the information, I saw that the majority of these people were economic, not political, refugees. I had doubts about the validity of the claims made by many of those who said they were fleeing political persecution.
Most of these people spoke English and had some education; therefore, they probably were aware that asking for political asylum was an easier way to get into the United States.
I’d hate to leave the impression that the crewmembers of the Tahoma always were the proverbial angels of mercy. I laughed at some Haitians when, one night, they pointed to lights on the horizon and said “Miami”—it was Cuba. The afternoon before we arrived in Haiti, the crew wrote slogans on the white T-shirts we had given some of the Haitians—e.g., “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service.”
The day finally came when the Tahoma tied up in Port-au-Prince and the people were handed over to the Haitian authorities. Many of the crew were upset that day. Some because they perceived a double standard in the treatment of the Cubans—who were allowed to go the United States—and the
Haitians—who were repatriated. For others, there was a feeling of frustration. After having rescued these peop! on the high seas, we were returning them to an uncertain fate. Despite ml experience and knowing that many W vowed to attempt the passage again a1 next week, I felt that I was doing something wrong—being not quite afl accomplice to murder but coming close. My only consolation was that these people left the Tahoma in bettet condition—physically, at least—than when they can^ aboard.
Every now and then I’ll see a news report about Hat1 and often there is file footaf of the Tahoma's flight deck overflowing with Haitians. 1 always brings back a rush0 memories. Unfortunately, the memories of all the pe°' pie who have helped these desperate people won’t sol'1 Haiti’s problems.
The United States needs1 do more than let those wh° survive the Windward Passage into the country or tr) better Haiti’s economic cd1' ditions so that staying at home will be preferable to risking $ ocean voyage in a dangerously overcrowded boat. Continuing with the Pp sent policy is tantamount to murder- Many Haitians—perhaps thousands^ have died attempting the crossing; those who stay could be executed f°r political reasons.
After nearly 200 years of self-rule' Haiti has not become the great “Ne?£ Nation” that its founders envisaged- " more than 200 years, the United StatL has given hope to the world. We hav‘ an obligation to the people who we spire—and that means we must do more than provide rescue services i*1 the Windward Passage.
Petty Officer Petersen entered the Coast Guard in 1980. He has served in the USCGC Clover (WLB-292) and the USCGC Tahoma (WMEC-908) and currently is stationed at thc*
U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape M3'
New Jersey. 1
Proceedings / September