Adiós, Fidel

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Enrique touches a sore spot. "As a country, Cuba isn't better than Mexico," he says, alluding to his country's stature as the 12th-biggest economy in the world. Mexico's $680 billion GDP outstrips that of Australia and Switzerland — though, of course, half of the nation's 105 million inhabitants live in poverty.

Enrique, who hails from the poor southern Mexican state of Chiapas, is a diehard capitalist, he says. It's hard to get ahead in Chiapas, where life is so roughshod that subsistence Mayan farmers sympathize with the armed Zapatista rebel group. But here in the United States — the sky's the limit, even though Enrique is spurned as an illegal.

His day will come soon maybe.

For now, standing on a narrow sidewalk in front of La Esquina del Taco, Enrique stares down the hoopties cruising Dixie Highway. He has pale skin and a wiry build, and he's missing a front tooth. The atmosphere is getting dodgier as the sky darkens, and he's ready to call it a night.

Sure, he'll toast a chela (beer) when Fidel dies, Enrique decides. After all, the güey (dude) is a dictator.

More than on-the-job slights or the Cubans' perceived self-importance, other national groups are rankled by the red-carpet treatment the Cubans get from immigration officials. Under the so-called wet-foot/dry-foot policy enacted during the Clinton administration, a Cuban sneaking into the United States is allowed to stay if he touches dry land.

"They get a green card and a parade in Miami," snaps José Pertierra, a Cuban-American immigration lawyer in Washington, D.C. "I've met Cubans who have crossed the border with Mexicans and actually gone looking for border patrol agents." Although other immigrants say the wet-foot/dry-foot policy is highly unfair, Pertierra believes that President Bush would never consider repealing it — even if Cuban refugees flood into Florida — because "he thinks he owes the Cubans in Miami an election."

Pertierra isn't just any attorney. He's the man who represented Elián González's father in the cross-straits battle to bring the boy back to Cuba.

But the disparities in treatment are most glaring for Haitians, the Caribbean's other boat people.

Abner Clerveaux has done well for himself since his clandestine entry into the United States via the Port of Miami in 1980. The 47-year-old from Port-au-Prince owns several pieces of property — a few homes and some land — and his oldest child is already in college. His English is eloquent, and his clothing is elegant — a far cry from the day he walked off a Haitian cargo vessel with just ten cents in his pocket and the clothes on his body. After being stamped a "Cuban-Haitian Entrant" by the government, it didn't take Clerveaux long to get established. His first job was for the Broward County School Board as a teacher's aide. Then he became a social worker.

"But things were very easy then under Jimmy Carter — they welcomed us with open arms," Clerveaux says in melodic English interrupted occasionally by hearty, low-decibel chuckles.

That welcome mat has since been pulled.

A firestorm erupted this past March when 101 Haitians — exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and bruised — washed up on Hallandale Beach only to be carted off to detention centers. Humanitarian groups and local Haitians argue that after suffering through 22 days drifting in a cramped and decrepit 40-foot wooden vessel, the detainees should be allowed to stay.

"They're treated as a criminal; they are treated like dogs," says Joyce Jennings, pausing from protest chants at a recent rally in front of a shopping plaza on the corner of 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood. "Other people come and they are welcome — we're not welcome."

Like their Caribbean brethren sailing from Cuba, these Haitians fled economic hardship by boat.

As Jennings speaks out, hundreds are gathered around — dancing, ranting, and flashing placards. The calls for "liberty" and "justice" for the Haitian community, and especially for the boatload of recent refugees, alternate from English to Creole. Sometimes cars passing on 79th Street give a honk of support.

Jennings has been protesting practically since she arrived in Florida from Haiti by plane 32 years ago. "I fight for other Haitians because that's my blood," she explains. Jennings speaks better English than many of her fellow demonstrators; as such, she's the unofficial spokeswoman for her group of friends waving signs and flags. "We came here because Haiti is no good," she says. "They kidnap you. They kill you."

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Amy Guthrie
Contact: Amy Guthrie