A rickety wooden freighter teeming with more than 200 Haitian refugees was blocked from docking here Thursday by the Coast Guard, which first chased the hobbled ship and then - after bumping into it - rescued its disheveled passengers and crew.
The interception and recovery occurred in high seas just off Miami Beach, where vacationers watched the day-long drama from the shore. The capture came one day after President Clinton signed an agreement that granted amnesty to thousands of previously illegal Nicaraguan and Cuban immigrants but that excluded the rising tide of Haitians who have sought illegal refuge in South Florida.
Eric Rubin, a White House spokesman, said that even if Haitians had been included in the legislation, its provisions would have no effect on newly arriving boat people.
A Coast Guard spokesman said there were “well over 200” on the 80-foot boat, which was spotted by a passing container ship at 4:55 a.m. Thursday when it began shooting flares into the darkened sky.
After a 5-1/2-hour standoff, the Haitian ship headed for shore. When it failed to heed calls on marine band radio to stop or visual attempts to wave it down, the Coast Guard said its cutter Maui “bumped the side” of the freighter to force it to a stop.
“Whether it rammed it or nudged it, there will be no fair hearing or due process” for the refugees, said Netlyn Bernard Samedy, 30, an official with the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights.
Because the ship was stopped in international waters, about six miles southeast of the entrance to the Port of Miami, a Coast Guard spokesman said, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will not be involved.
After food and water are distributed and the sick are treated, the Coast Guard said, the refugees will be returned to Port-au-Prince. The spokesman said none of the passengers appeared to be seriously ill. One boy was suffering from dehydration.
“Imagine the pathos of the people who could see the shore, who were close to realizing the dream, and then see the dream burst like a balloon in front of their eyes,” said Bishop Thomas Wensky, pastor of Miami’s Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, the largest Haitian congregation in the country.
Wensky said the large number of people willing to risk their lives - the freighter carried no life preservers - reminded him of a Haitian proverb: “The shark’s teeth are sweeter than misery.”
The interception “is just another reminder to them that their lives still don’t count,” added Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Little said the desperation of the boat people is an indication that despite the presence of U.S. troops and a legally installed government, “the political and economic situation in Haiti is deteriorating.”
Before signing the amnesty bill, Clinton said he would ask Congress next year to alleviate “the plight of certain Haitians who are not covered by this legislation. Before we helped restore democracy to Haiti, many Haitians were also forced to flee their country because of persecution and civil strife. They deserve the same treatment that this legislation makes possible for other groups.”