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Finding Mañana - Page 5

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Finding Mañana, by Mirta Ojito (continued)

Awaiting the next step: Seeking refuge requires enormous patience.

The day after the Mañana arrived in Mariel, President Carter appeared to endorse the boatlift during a stop at the League of Women Voters convention in Washington on May 5. After his prepared remarks, the president opened the floor for questions. A convention participant, Marion Shapiro of Hays, Kansas, asked him what he intended to do “about enforcing current immigration laws.”

“Ours is a country of refugees,” the president began. “Those of us who have been here for a generation, or six or eight generations, ought to have just as open a heart to receive the new refugees as our ancestors were received [with] in the past.” He went on to a lengthy explanation, which reporters later characterized as “brimming with compassion.” The president concluded with an unexpected promise: “We’ll continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from communist domination and from economic deprivation, brought about primarily by Fidel Castro and his government.” The audience responded with warm and extended applause.

If, up till then, stopping the boatlift had proved impossible, now that the president appeared to have asked the country to welcome the new refugees, the flotilla gained new momentum. His statement, much to the dismay of others in his administration who were pressing for a coherent and enforceable policy regarding the flotilla, made headlines in both Miami and Havana.

About 14,000 Cubans had arrived in Key West in the two weeks before the president gave what soon came to be known as his “open arms” speech. In the two weeks that followed it, 43,782 more arrived, and there were no indications that Castro was ready to stop his island from hemorrhaging people or that Cuban exiles had tired of following his game. On May 6 the president grabbed headlines again by declaring a state of emergency in South Florida and authorizing the release of $10 million to provide aid to the refugees. Later that day an exasperated State Department spokesman, Hodding Carter III, admitted to the press that the government had no policy toward Mariel.

“Hodding,” a reporter asked during a State Department briefing, “are you saying the government hasn’t had its act together?”

“I am saying, in the face of an extraordinary explosion of people seeking freedom, the answer is, yes, that is right,” Hodding Carter replied.

“But you know what? It is not possible to get the act together,” he went on, almost as if speaking to himself. “We did not envision that the man who held the keys to the jail in Cuba was going to let the people come out.”

At a White House meeting with members of the Florida congressional delegation on May 7, President Carter was defensive about his utterance at the League of Women Voters. He assured everyone that he’d been misinterpreted. Reporters had overemphasized the “open arms” element of the quote and neglected the historical context in which he’d said it. What he’d meant to say was that the United States had a history of compassionate immigration policy and that compassion should also be extended to those who had already arrived. He did not mean to encourage the disorderly arrival of thousands of people. But that distinction, even the president himself knew, was far too nuanced for a press corps hungry for a decisive statement from the White House regarding Mariel. Now that he’d said it, he couldn’t go back on his word. “I’m not going to sink any boats with people in them,” the president said coldly before concluding the one-hour meeting.

Later that day, top administration officials, including National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and the president’s chief domestic-policy adviser, Stuart Eizenstat, held a meeting to assess the impact of the president’s “open arms” comment. Everyone agreed that, in the absence of a coherent policy, the president’s words had become the government’s de facto policy regarding Mariel.

Brzezinski, a Polish immigrant who tended to view the world through the prism of the Cold War, thought, like Jimmy Carter, that the United States should be generous and accept the Cubans, but in an orderly way. Eizenstat, who had been a junior aide in the Johnson White House during the time of the Camarioca flotilla, argued that the administration was too focused on the foreign-policy ramifications of the boatlift. What was needed, he said, was what he termed “an acceptable policy,” a safe, legal way to stem the flow of people he knew Castro had no incentive to curtail. Assistant Secretary of State Warren Christopher explained that whatever decision they ultimately came up with probably would not include any cooperation from the Cuban government. “Castro won’t participate in talks,” he said.

The next day President Carter telephoned Eizenstat and asked him to collaborate with Brzezinski in formulating an enforceable policy to stop the boatlift. It was time Washington sent a unified, clear message to both Miami and Cuba.

The following morning, May 9, everyone in the administration woke up to read a scathing New York Times editorial mocking President Carter: “At last, the President has pledged that the United States will provide ‘an open heart and open arms’ to the refugees pouring our of Cuba. Excellent, but does one open arm know what the other is doing?”

That same day Mike decided to go back to the Hotel Triton to check on his list. After three days and three nights in Cuba, he was eager to go home and tired of being told he must wait. He didn’t see what good he could do waiting around all day under a punishing sun until some bureaucrat or, worse, a man with a gun, made a decision about when and if he could return to the States and even about whom he could take with him.

He asked David, one of his crew members, to accompany him. He didn’t want to be alone with the Cubans in charge. Something about their starched uniforms and half-crooked smiles—as if they were privy to a joke he was too dumb or too gringo to get—made him uncomfortable, and he didn’t trust himself to keep his cool in their presence.

 At the hotel a Cuban soldier noticed the rigging knife David carried in his belt and took it from him before the two Americans could meet with immigration officials. A trio was playing a Cuban bolero when Mike walked into the office.

Okay, he said. We’re ready to go.Where are my people?

Here’s your list, a uniformed man with a gun told him.

Mike looked it over. That wasn’t his list. His people were on it, but there were three hundred other names he’d never heard of before.

No, I’m not taking three hundred people in my boat, he said flatly. We are only going to take the people on my list. With that he threw the list on the table and turned around to leave.

You are going to have to do it! the man yelled after him, and then threatened arrest him if he didn’t. Mike rotated on his heels and looked straight at the officer. His open, dimpled face, framed by unruly hair that brushed against his eyes, made Mike look younger than he was and belied the anger that was always boiling just below the surface, hidden behind his smile. When angry, he stood erect, stretching his barrel-like torso so that he became taller, the fist of his overly strong right arm opening and closing quickly as if grasping for a weapon that, fortunately on that day, he didn’t have.

If you’re going to arrest me, you better get more people, Mike said, eyeing the expanding group of soldiers who’d come to the officer’s aid. Then he stormed off, followed by David. Nobody moved.

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Finding Mañana © 2005 by Mirta Ojito Used by Permission. All rights reserved.